Asia-Pacific Photography 1840s - 1940s
11 Jul 2008—28 Sep 2008
This is the first exhibition to survey the history of photography of our region – from India and Sri Lanka, Southeast and East Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands to the west coast of North America. It features pioneer local photographers as well as Europeans working in the region. The exhibition reveals the rich heritage and the many outstanding achievements of the first century of photography in the Asia–Pacific region.
This significant gathering of over four hundred original photographs and albums includes gem-like daguerreotype portraits, mass-produced views and portraits on paper made possible by the revolutionary wet-plate and dry-plate glass negative-positive process, and prints from the modern era of small format film cameras and photojournalism.
Picture Paradise presents works from seventeen public and private collections in Australia, Europe, New Zealand and the United States of America, many never previously loaned or exhibited. The majority of these works are from the National Gallery of Australia’s extensive photography collection and include the rarely seen nearly ten-metre-long Holtermann panorama of Sydney Harbour from 1875.
Proudly supported by the National Gallery of Australia Council Exhibitions Fund and the National Photography Festival
Pioneers: The daguerreotype and early photography on paper
Two photographic processes made their debut in Europe in January 1839. The daguerreotype – developed by the French painter Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre – was the most impressive, capturing mirror-sharp images on small polished metal plates.
The rival process, photogenic drawing – developed by the British scientist and amateur artist William Henry Fox Talbot – produced soft negative images on sheets of writing paper. Both processes produced a single and unique image.
In 1841, Talbot patented an improved process, the calotype, through which many positive paper prints could be produced from a master paper negative, making it possible for photographs to be published in large editions.
While the daguerreotype portrait dominated photographic production in the early years, with commercial portrait studios opening in Europe and America from 1841, photography on paper proved suitable for amateur use and for the production of folios of prints and book illustrations. The photographic industry was born and immediately exported worldwide.
The art of photography: aesthetic efforts, amateur and professional
From the mid 1880s, photography became much more accessible with refinements making it possible for photographers to buy pre-coated, ready-to-use plates that could be taken on excursions or assignments and developed later. Amateur photography clubs began and magazines provided technical and artistic help. The Kodak cameras of the 1890s made amateur photography even easier as the processing could be done for the photographer.
Studio photographers provided high-quality portraits and views but the amateur photographers, often called ‘snapshooters’, brought a new spirit and enthusiasm to photography and provided images of everyday life. At the turn of the century a movement of ambitious art photographers emerged in Europe and America. Art photographers, later known as Pictorialists, soon appeared in the Asia–Pacific region.
The new photographers moved from glossy, sharp prints to impressionistic moods on matte surfaces. They gave the works fancy titles and exhibited them in elegant frames. A new era had begun. The art photography movement had an impact on professional photographers’ who sought to make their images more picturesque and atmospheric.
For the millions: the trade in views and portraits
By the mid 1860s, wet-plate glass-negatives and albumen prints were well established and a paradise of picture opportunities for photographers opened up. Through preservation in specially designed albums, personal and celebrity portraits and local and exotic travel images could be collected.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 increased the numbers of globetrotters in the Asia–Pacific region. Photographers hauled their travelling wet-plate photography outfits to places as diverse as the local town hall and the peaks of the Himalayas. They competed to make ever more ambitious panoramas – the nearly ten-metre-long panorama of Sydney Harbour of 1875 is one of the largest.
From around 1860, the small carte de visite (calling-card) became a craze. Cheap but high-quality, the portraits and views were popular across all social levels. Cartes-de-visite and larger prints of exotic places and people became a sideline most photographers added to their business to sell to tourists and export back to Europe.
Modern times: facts and fantasies
From the 1920s to 1940s, the numbers and types of photographic images increased across all aspects of modern industry and social life, as did the numbers of photographers. Women photographers in particular made a significant contribution to the advance of modern photography.
While beautifully crafted pictorial photographs continued to be made across more locations in the Asia–Pacific region, photography was increasingly experienced through reproduction rather than as original prints. Illustrated magazines supported the rise of specialist photographers for news, advertising and lifestyle journals and corporate productions.
New attitudes to the purpose and power of photography developed, with photographers of the modern school inspired by the hard edges and unusual angles of the New Photography movement as well as other art movements in Europe. At the same time, glamour portraiture and lifestyle photography – developing out of Hollywood film stills and promotions – began to flourish. Facts and fantasies in photography competed for public attention.
The art of photography - Japan
Photography began to be established in Japan in the mid 1860s. Activity centred on the three ports of Yokohama, Hakodate and Nagasaki, which were opened up to foreign trade and residents by the trade treaty initiated by the 1853–54 visit of the US naval expedition under Commodore Perry. The photographic trade was further stimulated by the arrival of high numbers of tourists after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
A unique genre of exquisitely hand-coloured photographs of views and portraits of Japanese costumes and customs was made popular in the 1870s in the studios of Felice Beato and Stillfried & Andersen. By the turn of the century, hand-coloured photographs by Japanese-owned studios were exported worldwide. The photographs were often sold in bound albums with elaborately decorated lacquered wood covers.
The art of photography - ethnographic projects
In the late nineteenth century, ambitious ethnographic photography projects were undertaken. A number were published using new photomechanical reproduction technologies to decrease costs and increase distribution.
German born immigrant photographer J W Lindt took a series of portraits of Australian Indigenous people in Grafton, New South Wales in 1873, which he effectively marketed for decades worldwide as original albumen silver prints. German ethnographer Adolf Meyer produced three extensive photographic portfolios of photogravures of peoples in New Guinea, the Philippines and the Celebes in the 1880s and early 1900s, making use of ‘native types’ tableaus purchased from local studios as well as images he made in the field. In 1884 Indonesian photographer Kassian Céphas was commissioned to record court dance performances in Jogyakarta, which were published in a portfolio of collotypes.
Lindt’s book Picturesque New Guinea, published in 1887, was very successful, reaching a larger audience than the volumes of John Thomson’s China in the 1870s. He made use of the new fine-quality carbon autotype photomechanical process for the illustrations and for the large murals he sent to exhibitions.
Picture paradise: Asia–Pacific photography 1840s–1940s will showcase, for the first time, the National Gallery of Australia’s Asian and Pacific photography collection – supplemented by loans from public and private collections in Australia, United Kingdom and United States of America. It will provide a window into the lives of the photographers and their images of the region, many of which have never been seen publicly before. The exhibition covers the first century of Asia–Pacific photography and the area stretching from India and Sri Lanka through Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific to the west coast of North America. The over four hundred works include photographs by both foreign photographers working in the region and locals. Visitors will see a range of photographic techniques, including daguerreotypes, photogenic drawings, calotypes; and an array of subjects as the technologies advanced.
One of the many fascinating discoveries while researching the exhibition Picture paradise: Asia–Pacific photography 1840s–1940s was that the royal courts in Asia and the Pacific were places where photography was first introduced into a country. As a consequence, the courts were often where the first native-born photographers had their start.
In the mid 1840s in Bangkok in Siam (now Thailand), members of the royal court received training on the daguerreotype camera imported by the French Catholic Bishop in 1845. One of these trainees took the business name of Francis Chit (1830–1891) when he started his own photography studio in Bangkok in 1863. He became the first professional Thai-born photographer of note.
Photographs by Chit were among those given to British widow Anna Leonowens by the King of Siam, King Mongkut (Rama IV, reigned 1851–1868). Leonowens used these photographs to illustrate her 1870 tale The English governess at the Siamese court, which later inspired many book, stage and film adaptions – the most famous of which is the 1956 musical film The King and I. The title page of Leonowens’s book draws special attention to the king’s gift, but the photographs were no mark of special favour. King Mongkut kept drawers full of photographic images to give to visiting foreigners. The selection and styles of photographs in stock were carefully constructed to give Mongkut and the Thai nation a very dignified and substantial public image in Europe and America.
From his ascension in 1851, King Mongkut brought an astute and creative flair to the staging of royal portraits to exchange for those he was receiving from foreign monarchs and leaders. He spoke English well and was very familiar with Western science, and he understood exactly how to convey through photography the authority and dignity of his court and people, and thus their equality with their European counterparts.
Mongkut initiated various court protocols and made social reforms to align Thai and Western practices in order to smooth negotiations and meetings with foreigners. These adjustments included abandoning shaved heads and adopting European stockings and shoes. According to the occasion, the king might appear in traditional Thai dress, French-style military dress uniform or in his own simple white robes as a Buddhist monk. In another concession to Western ideals, Mongkut appealed to European monogamous sensibilities by being photographed with a single consort and crown prince rather than with multiple wives and children.
Quite a large number of Thai royal portraits survive. As part of an exchange of gifts honouring the 1856 Treaty of Amity and Commerce, and Navigation Mongkut between Thailand and the United States, Mongkut sent a dignified yet simple portrait of himself with Queen Debsirindra, mother of the crown prince, to President Franklin Pierce. Similar portraits were sent to Pope Pius IX, Napoleon III and Queen Victoria. The following year, Queen Victoria sent King Mongkut a daguerreotype outfit as a gift. It is still held in the Thai archives.
Foreign photographers were also often allowed access to the king. While travelling in Thailand in 1865, Scottish photographer and writer John Thomson (1837–1921), who had been working from a studio in Singapore from 1862, sought permission to photograph the Royal Palace in Bangkok. He was immediately granted access. In his 1875 book The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China, and China, or Ten years’ travels, adventures, and residence abroad, Thomson provides an eyewitness report of the king’s attitude to photography. He tells how King Mongkut, after first appearing in his monastic robes and expressing a wish to be photographed in prayer, changed his mind and reappeared in his French-style military uniform. The king ensured that his brother, who Thomson was told had a good grasp on photography, watched the photographer at work. In 1868, Mongkut was succeeded by his equally remarkable son King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who ruled until 1910 and was even more energetic in exchanging and disseminating photographs of the royal family. King Chulalongkorn was especially concerned to present himself as a modern monarch and travelled to neighbouring countries and to Europe. Hundreds of photographs from his travels still exist.
Across the Pacific Ocean the royal family of Hawaii were also among the first photographed in 1845 by a visiting photographer from Peru. One of the finest treasures on loan to the Picture paradise exhibition is a striking wholeplate daguerreotype of the family of King Kamehameha III in Honolulu. The photograph from the Hawaii’s Bishop Museum was taken around 1853 by German-born daguerreotypist Hugo Stangenwald (1829–1899), who had arrived in Honolulu while travelling to Sydney from the goldfields of California. Business was so good in Hawaii that Stangenwald stayed on and earned enough as a photographer to return to Vienna in 1858 to finish his medical studies. He later returned to Hawaii to open a medical practice.
The Hawaiian royals continued to employ photographers to take their portraits; however, unlike in Thailand, no native Hawaiians appear to have been trained. The royal family, by encouraging diplomatic ties through the exchange of portraits, looked to the British to support their fight against the encroaching annexation by the United States. Although this bid for continued sovereignty failed when annexation took place in 1898, the surviving portraits are rich and varied. Queen Emma, consort to King Kamehameha IV from 1856 to his death in 1863, was praised by Queen Victoria for her dignity – a quality seen strongly in her portrait in Picture paradise.
Back in Asia, the resplendent portrait photographs of maharajas, clothed in silk and encrusted with jewels, indelibly fixed the mystery and allure of India in the West. Photographic equipment arrived in India in 1840 soon after its invention in Europe, and many of the country’s princes, such as Maharaja Birchandra Manikya (reigned 1862–96), took more than a passing interest in learning the new medium themselves. The most famous nineteenthcentury Indian photographer is undoubtedly Lala Deen Dayal (1844–1910), who worked for both Indian and British patrons, including the Nizam of Hyderabad and Lord Curzon. He later opened his own studio in Bombay in 1896.
In Japan, the earliest surviving daguerreotype portrait is of Shimazu Nariakira, the daimyo of Satsuma. It was taken by self-taught court photographer Ichiki Shirō (1828–1903) in 1857 on apparatus first imported by the daimo in 1848. The Imperial family were uninterested in the new medium and were not photographed until the 1870s by Uchida Kuichi (1844–1875). By the 1880s, however, they were presenting themselves to the camera in Western dress.
Queen Victoria never travelled to Asia or the Pacific but it became the practice to dispatch crown princes on royal tours in the British colonial realms of the Asia–Pacific region. The tour of Prince Alfred to the Australian colonies in 1867–68 stimulated a scramble by local photographers all along the route to secure photographs. As the royal entourage collected prints from local studios, these studios were also competing for the much desired Royal Warrant of Appointment, which allowed the supplier to advertise that they supply to the Royal Family – ‘By Royal Appointment’. The Prince’s yacht also had a photographer on board, ensuring that the tour was well documented. Various commemorative publications from the Prince’s tour were issued in Hong Kong, South Africa and Australia. Tsar Nicholas of Russia similarly sent the crown prince on a tour of Asia and many gift photographs were collected. These occasions also benefited local photographers, as they were able to observe and learn about the latest trends from photographers who were travelling with royal visitors.
The sons and grandsons of deposed French royals also travelled to Asia and the Pacific and some became explorers. The Duke of Penthièvre and the Count of Beauvoir travelled around the world in 1866, gathering photographs along the way. Beauvoir’s book of their trip, Voyage autour du monde, was a best seller. Explorer Prince Henri d’Orleans (1867–1901) became famous as an explorer in Asia. From 1895 to 1896, he travelled with his cameras from Hanoi in Vietnam to Assam in India. He followed the Irrawady River in search of its source and published the popular book From Tonkin to India by the sources of the Irrawady.
The 1850s French invention of the carte de visite, a type of small photographic portrait, arrived in the Asia–Pacific region in the 1860s. Cartes de visite were preserved in specially designed albums, and the popularity of the format in the British colonies was stimulated by the sale of one album in particular: London photographer John Mayall’s album of the British Royal Family, which was sanctioned and commercially released in 1860. In turn, cartes de visite of just about every native king and queen in Asia and the Pacific also proved popular back in Europe.
The enthusiasm with which the royal families of Asia and the Pacific accepted photography almost certainly helped to secure the status and adoption of the medium worldwide. It is harder to tell, however, if the exchange of portraits between royals and dignitaries in the Asia–Pacific region and the West had any significant or lasting effects on diplomatic relations. The royal portraits make up a small but vibrant part of the photographs that will be on display in the exhibition Picture paradise: Asia–Pacific photography 1840s–1940s at the National Gallery of Australia from July to September 2008.
Senior Curator, Photography, and curator of Picture paradise: Asia–Pacific photography 1840s–1940s
The exhibition is presented in conjunction with Vivid, Australia’s inaugural National Photography Festival, which celebrates photography’s vital role in Australian life and history.
Early Photography in Asia and the Pacific
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.
Senior Curator, Photography