Lai Afong Western man in Chinese costume c.1885 albumen silver photograph in original lacquer frame 14.6 x 9.52 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Lai Afong Western man in Chinese costume   c.1885   albumen silver photograph in original lacquer frame 14.6 x 9.52 cm   National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Local heroes of early photography in Asia and the Pacific

Many foreign photographers working in Asia and the Pacific have been celebrated as the most important pioneer photographers in the region – in particular, British photographers working in the 1860s and 1870s, such as Samuel Bourne in colonial India and John Thomson in Southeast Asia. The predominance of foreigners is to be expected: photography was an import from Europe and America in the 1840s and 1850s, and much of the Asia and Pacific region was under European or American control during the first century of photography. Often overlooked, however, is the first generation of Asian-born photographers, many of whom began as assistants to European photographers before forming their own studios from the 1860s to 1890s. Some, like Indian photographer Lala Deen Dayal (1844–1905), became quite well known in Europe. Most nineteenth-century Asian photographers, however, are not as well known outside their own countries, but their role in the history of photography in the region is as important as that of the more-celebrated foreign photographers.

It is apparent from the trade directories that from the 1860s onwards Chinese photographers not only worked in the British colony of Hong Kong in considerable numbers but many Chinese also operated portrait studios across Asia and the Pacific Islands, including Indonesia and Hawaii. When writing about his time in Asia, John Thomson, who remains one of the most revered pioneer travel photographers, paid special tribute to a landscape photographer in Hong Kong who traded as Afong studio. Lai Afong was in business from 1859 to the 1890s, after which his son continued the firm. He was one of the few nineteenth-century Chinese photographers to market a range of very fine topographical and landscape images as well as studio portraits. Several Afong albums survive that show his beautiful landscape work as well as fine examples of his studio portraiture.

In Japan, the dominance of foreigners was short lived. One of the most successful early local photographers was Kusakabe Kimbei (1841–1934) who started in 1863 as an assistant to Italian-born British photographer Felice Beato, who had introduced hand-colouring to photography in Japan. Kimbei started his own studio in 1881 in Yokohama and was active until 1900. He was known for his hand-coloured work and richly decorated album covers.

In Thailand, Francis Chit (Khun Sunthornsathitsalak, 1830–1891) was a Thai Christian who learnt photography from the French Bishop in Bangkok. Chit was court photographer to King Mongkut (Rama IV) and his son Chulalongkorn (Rama V). He started his own studio in Bangkok in 1863, catering to foreigners for the most part. Chit made portraits and landscapes, including one of the earliest and largest panoramas in Asia.

Kassian Cephas (1845–1912) was the first local Indonesian photographer of note. He worked for the Jogjakarta court from the 1870s, and in 1884 he photographed a rare dance performance for Dutch ethnographer J Groneman. The pictures of the performance were printed as photomechanical reproductions called collotypes in In den kedaton te Jogjakarta: oepatjara, ampilan, a two-volume book published in Leiden in 1888. A number of works by Cephas, as well as the Groneman volumes, are now held by the National Gallery of Australia, as are works by Chit, Afong, Kimbei and Deen Dayal. With these holdings the Gallery pays tribute to the local heroes of early photography in Asia and the Pacific.

Gael Newton
Senior Curator, Photography