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Rare images show China at the dawn of photography – 19th century

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Stephan Loewentheil's exhaustive photo archive shines a new light on life in 19th-century China. Scroll through to see more images from his collection. Photos: The Loewentheil Collection of China Photography

Before the advent of photography, the Western imagination of China was based on paintings, written travel notes, and dispatches to seemingly distant land.

However, beginning in the 1850s, a group of pioneering Western photographers tried to capture the country’s landscapes, cities and people, attracting viewers back to their hometowns, and in the process triggered a local photography movement.

Among them is Felice Beato from Italy. He arrived in China in the 1850s and recorded the Anglo-French customs during the Second Opium War. Scottish photographer John Thompson walks along the Min River, providing Westerners with a rare view of the country’s remote interiors.

Scottish photographer John Thompson recorded his travels on the Min river, a rare sight in remote areas of China. Scottish photographer John Thompson documented his travels up the Min River, offering a rare look at remote areas of China.

These are just portraits of some of the characters. It played an important role in the 15,000 photograph collection of New York antiquities collector and collector Stephan Loewentheil.

His 19th-century images cover street scenes, merchants, rural life and architecture, showing everything from blind people begging to camel caravans on the Silk Road in unprecedented detail.

Loewentheil is a rare book dealer who has been buying pictures from auctioneers and collectors in China and abroad for the past three decades. They constitute what he calls the world’s largest private collection of early Chinese photography. (Given the turbulent 20th century, especially during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, the amount of turbulent art and handicrafts lost in the country, this statement is entirely reasonable.)

In 2018, he exhibited 120 prints for the first time in Beijing. The scope of the exhibition can be traced back to the 1850s. It is the origin of Chinese paper photos until the 1880s. It uses the earliest forms of photography as examples, such as protein printing and “wet plate” processes that use egg whites to bond chemicals to paper, in which negatives are processed on glass plates in a portable darkroom.

The 15,000-strong photo collection features everyday Chinese tradespeople from the mid-19th century, like this weaver. After being developed, some of the images were hand-colored by painters.

The 15,000 photo collection includes everyday Chinese merchants, such as weavers, in the mid-19th century. After development, some images were hand-colored by painters.

These technological developments heralded the birth of commercial photography technology in China. This is because they enabled the rapid reproduction and dissemination of images for the first time.

“People wanted to bring back great images that they could sell in other places,” said Loewentheil. “People who traveled there, everyone from diplomats and businessmen to missionaries, all wanted to bring home a record of this beautiful culture of China that was so unique.

“Some of them had a market back home, but immediately they found a Chinese love for photography and they developed a strong market inside the country. Chinese photographers (then) picked up on that, and served both markets.”
Chinese pioneers 

Foreigners played an important role in China’s early photography. However, Loewentheil’s collection also recognizes the achievements of the country’s native practitioners.

Some people bought cameras from Westerners who left in search of selling their bulky equipment. Meanwhile, others took advantage of Chinese innovations in this field, such as the mathematician Zou Boqi. It is to used foreign-produced products to design his own glass plate camera.

A photo of two actors taken by Chinese photographer Lai Afong.

Photography studios spread throughout China in the second half of the 19th century.

An image of two actors taken by pioneering Chinese photographer Lai Afong. Photography studios spread through China in the latter half of the 19th century.

Photography first arrived in port cities and then spread throughout China in the second half of the 19th century. This led to the establishment of commercial studios specializing in personal and family portraits. Many of which were later hand-colored by well-trained painters.

In Loewentheil’s view, the portraits, landscapes and urban landscapes produced by pioneers like Lai Afong are of the same quality as contemporary Westerners.

The collector said: “There is equality between Chinese photography and Chinese photographers, which is not well known in China.”

“Some of the earliest Chinese photographers are outstanding.”

Chinese photographers do not copy foreign ancestors, but are often inspired by their own artistic traditions.

Loewentheil said, for example, the composition and use of portraits are more like paintings. The nanny is often photographed facing the camera, standing upright, with almost no expression or even no expression. The early portraits seem to be “portraits of Chinese ancestors imitating painting.”

An unattributed portrait of a young woman dating back to around 1860. 

An unattributed portrait of a young woman dating back to around 1860.

At the same time, the image of the architecture includes the surrounding natural environment instead of focusing on the building in isolation, which is another departure from the Western tradition.

“Usually, when we have an unidentified photographer, we have a very good idea whether they are Chinese or Western,” Loewentheil added.

Preservers of history

In addition to its artistic value, Loewentheil’s images also seem to have academic significance. His 2018 exhibition was held at Tsinghua University in Beijing (one of the leading universities in China).

Chinese vintage film magazines capture a glorious past era
In the nineteenth century, the arrival of foreign technology, including cameras, was only one of the fundamental changes at the end of the empire (China became a republic in 1912 after a four-month revolution). In this way, the photos at the time captured a world that would soon disappear.

Take the work of the British Thomas Child as an example. He is an engineer who records the complexity of traditional Chinese architecture. His photos of the Summer Palace in Beijing were later burned by British and French invaders, providing a valuable record of its lost buildings.

Thomas Child’s pictures show architectural details of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace. It was largely destroyed by Anglo-French forces in 1860. 

Loewentheil said: “Photography is the greatest preserver of history.” “For many years, the written word was the way that history was transmitted. But the earliest photography preserves culture in China, and elsewhere, as it had been for many hundreds of years because it was simultaneous with the technological revolutions that were to change everything.”

The architect is responsible for reviving the former capital of China.
Although Loewentheil was engaged in collection work, he insisted that these images were collected for future generations. He believes that he is the custodian of the historical archive-and should eventually return to its place of origin. He is currently digitizing the collection in the hope of creating an online database for historians and researchers.

“We really want this to be an asset to the Chinese people, and we’re open to academics or intellectuals who want to study (the photos),” he said.
“My hope is that the collection will end up in China. It’s not for sale, but from a cultural, intellectually honest perspective: It’s something that doesn’t belong with me.”
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