John Thomson: China and Its Peoples

October 29,1994 -January 14, 1995.


The Chinese Culture Center has scheduled the opening of “John Thomson: China and
Its Peoples for Saturday, October 29, 1994. The exhibition contains a selection of 77
collotypes taken by Scotsman, John Thomson during his extensive expedition through China,
from 1868-1872. Thomson was born in Edinburgh in 1837. In 1862, at the age of 25, he
settled in the Far East, after a visit to Singapore where his brother had established a
shiphandlery business. It was here in Singapore that Thomson recruited and trained two
Chinese assistants, Akum and Ahong, who were to remain with him throughout his travels.
Although encumbered with heavy photographic equipment and frequently forced to deal with
inhospitable circumstances, Thomson managed to travel extensively through the Far East for
ten years and produce over 1200 negatives.

Thomson’s photographs were in part edifying and in part expressive of his own
wonder at a world once available only to the imagination. Photography provided an
opportunity for Thomson to testify to a vision and convey a “true” knowledge of what was
once considered to be beyond the reaches of the West. It is Thomson who later abandons
the practice of the staged studio portrait in efforts to make manifest the “actual” essence and
individuality of people, by photographing an assortment of classes and races directly within
their own environment. Thomson’s extensive notes on the people and their lives
corresponded directly with his intentions to promote the use of photography as a tool for other explorers.
Text and context were an integral part of Thomson’s photographs. Published in
Foochow and the River Min, 1873; Illustrations of China and Its Peoples, 1873-4; The Straits of
Malacca, Indo-China and China, 1875; and Through China with a Camera, 1898, the
photographs were accompanied by sentimental and sympathetic narrations of the
characteristics of the subjects he portrayed. In a time when knowledge was derived from
observation and classification it should not seem odd that Thomson desired a recognition not
from the quality of his photographs, but from his contributions to general knowledge.
Thomson’s photographs offer an extraordinarily panoramic vision of the landscapes
and people of China. A certain sense of poignancy unites these photographs in a manner
which beautifully immortalizes the past glory of a dynasty on the verge of collapse. It is not
surprising that in a period of rapid change and uncertainty in the Western world, these
photographs manifest a perhaps nostalgic yearning for some refuge of permanence and

This exhibit is organized and circulated by the International Sculpture Center,
Washington, D.C. Presentation of this exhibition at the Chinese Culture Center has been
made possible by the California Arts Council, a state agency, Publicity and Advertising Fund
of Grants for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.