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27 documents | 27 pages

Photography in China : History and Processes, 1839-1920

(December 2002)

Photography was officially announced to the world in 1839. It was hailed as a miracle, and immediately carried around the world to record what was there.

I - A Few Landmarks:

* Early 1840s: Photography (daguerreotype) reaches China.
* 1842: Photographs are reported to have been made in Nanjing on the occasion of the signing of the Treaty of Nanking between England and China.
* 1844-45: Jules Itier, a Frenchman, (section: photographers) takes the earliest identified views of China in Macao, Whampoa and Canton.
* 1840s-50s: Itinerant photographers active in South and East Asia visit the Treaty Ports of China, advertising their arrival in the local press to potential customers. The pattern of the following years is already set, that photography will be practiced almost exclusively in areas where foreigners live, basically a few ports along the coast and the Yangzi river.

* Photographers rapidly switch from daguerreotype to the newly invented wet collodion process. While still unable to photograph movement, the new process creates a negative which can be copied as many times as needed.
* The first permanent photographers settle in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
* Photography of local life is started.

* First photographs of Beijing.
* Numerous photographers, both Western and Chinese, open commercial studios, mainly in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Canton and Fuzhou. (WE NEED A MAP OF CHINA SHOWING THE TREATY PORTS)
* Their activities focus on portraiture, a great success with both the Western and Chinese communities. Specifically for the Western market, they also produce views of topography, as well as 'types and customs.' The latter are photographed indoor or outdoor in studio settings, generally not from real life.
* The first photographic images of judiciary customs appear on the market, the work of William Saunders in Shanghai. (section: photographers)

* Saunders' scenes of executions and punishment are engraved by the Western illustrated press. John Thomson (section: photographers) publishes, with comments, numerous photographs of China which include two punishments . [biblio]
* Photography keeps gaining ground, however still almost exclusively in the Treaty Ports, a pattern that changes only after 1900.
* Many views of Chinese customs are produced by the studios, among which the judiciary ones are well represented. However, the scenes are still constructed for the camera in studio setting, generally by "actors" paid by the photographer. [Reality of scenes]
* The scenes are intensely "pirated" between competitors.

* A new process using fast (industrial) plates allows photography of movement (silver gelatin plates) [processes].The camera can now shoot scenes in situ.
* Still, whether genuine or fabricated, scenes are still generally carefully arranged and posed, in order to show clearly what is going on.
* Amateur photography gains ground.

* The earlier known photograph of a lingchi execution is shot in Canton in 1890, from real life. Other types of execution are also recorded from life.
* Together with other negative views of China (like opium smoking or bound feet), punishments are a popular topic with the Western clientèle.
* The small portable camera appears in China.

* Thousands of foreign troops reach China on the occasion of the Boxer Rebellion. Many military or civilians bring portable cameras. Their position as occupying forces allows them the freedom to photograph anything. (essay lingchi)
* Executions and physical punishment are a significant topic in the new and spectacularly successful postcard industry; this success hurts commercial studios which are lose ground as provider of scenes.
* Scenes are now often produced by amateurs. In Beijing, whole sequences of lingchi executions are shot by French troops.
* The new, light stereoscopic cameras are popular with amateur photographers.

* The 1911 revolution is the occasion for recording incredibly violent scenes; these also appear on postcards.
* The violent images are found on a parallel, 'under the counter' market, often in albums entirely devoted to the topic.

II - A Few Photographic Terms:

Daguerreotype: Although a superb photographic process, there are not many examples of daguerreotypes identified as 'made in China,' and none related to judiciary topics. This excellent process, in which the negative and positive were the same object, suffered from a serious drawback: there was only one copy for each photograph. It was also a slow process, meaning that total immobility was required for as much as several minutes.

Wet Collodion: Invented in 1853, this process created a negative, thus allowing duplication of copies. It was a 'wet' process, meaning that the plate had to be exposed just after it had been coated with the photographic mixture, and then developed while still wet. An excellent process in regards to quality, it was in use for over 20 years, including by Saunders and Thomson. One of its drawbacks was its incapacity to catch movement which forced all scenes into being posed.

Negative: A negative is the source image produced by the camera, from which positive will be printed, generally on paper.

Albumen Paper: Egg white was used in the fabrication of the emulsion coating the paper, hence the name. Very thin, this paper offered an excellent image definition and was used beyond 1900.

Silver Gelatin: This process brought a major improvement to photography, the capture of moving objects. The basis for modern film photography, it gradually replaced wet collodion in China during the late 1870s - early 1880s. The plates were manufactured industrially, whcih was also an improvement. First used on glass plates, the process was also used with rollfilm from the late 1880s on.

Portable Camera: This is named in opposition to the older tripod camera. Allowing field photography and much less conspicuous than the tripods, they were ideal for stealing images and made a significant difference in the recording of executions.

Industrial Printing Papers: Contrary to the albumen paper which was for a long time coated by the photographer before use, the c. 1900 printing papers could be bought ready for use. Unfortunately, some processes were not long-lasting and the images have since severely faded.

Stereoscopic Cameras: Taking two views simultaneously on the same plate, the stereos create a 3-dimensional effect. A very successful brand in the early 1900s was the Vérascope Richard. It was used to record lingchi executions.

Loading Chamber: Allowed the photographer to use several plates without re-loading his camera. Typically held 6 or 12 plates. Very important in the shooting the various stages of an execution, like the lingchi.

Glass Slides:
The negative is printed on another glass plate, creating a positive image which can be viewed with a projector or by transparency.

Color Photography:
A preoccupation almost as old as photography itself, color photography only became a reality with the Lumière Brothers' autochrome process in 1904. The plates were not negative, but became a glass slide on development.

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