Archive for the ‘Photographs’ Category

Black and grey

April 11, 2013
Attarine Medersa, Fez, by Katie Cooke, taken with a pinhole camera. ©Katie Cooke

Attarine Medersa, Fez, by Katie Cooke, taken with a pinhole camera. ©Katie Cooke

An exhibition at the Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock, which runs from 12 April until 22 September 2013, examines the relevance of black and white photography today.

Musée Gallo-Romain, Lyon, by Nettie Edwards, taken with an iPhone. ©Nettie Edwards

Musée Gallo-Romain, Lyon, by Nettie Edwards, taken with an iPhone. ©Nettie Edwards

The exhibition features the work of six artists working with black and white photography: Anthony Jones, Deborah Parkin, Trevor Ashby, Nettie Edwards, Mark Voce and Katie Cooke.

Ben Youssef Medersa, Marrakech, by Katie Cooke, taken with a pinhole camera. ©Katie Cooke

Ben Youssef Medersa, Marrakech, by Katie Cooke, taken with a pinhole camera. ©Katie Cooke

Roger Watson, the curator at the Fox Talbot Museum, comments that the absence of colour forces us to notice the texture, line and shape in the images.

Versailles Grand Canal: February 2013, by Nettie Edwards, taken with an iPhone. ©Nettie Edwards

Versailles Grand Canal: February 2013, by Nettie Edwards, taken with an iPhone. ©Nettie Edwards

The cameras and techniques used vary from the most recent – the iPhone – to the most traditional – the pinhole camera – demonstrating the almost infinite possibilities of black and white photography. However, all the artists seem to share an interest in contemplative observation and an appreciation of the passing of time.

The preconditioned eye

July 19, 2012

Eminent individual, c. 1890, from the Bowrac collection featured by Visualising China

Last week I showed a few early twentieth-century photographs from the exciting Visualising China site which were taken or collected by the Chinese Nationalist politician Fu Bingchang. Here, by contrast are a few images taken by or for foreign visitors to China in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

Nodding mandarin figure, c.1820, in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

It is remarkable how much continuity they show with the earlier, ‘chinoiserie’ view of China. One gets the sense that westerners went to China expecting to see certain things, or only noticed things that they had been preconditioned to see.

Manchu woman in fine traditional dress, c. 1905, from the Ruxton collection featured by Visualising China

The images include ‘documentary’ shots of Chinese in traditional upper class garb.

Chinese mirror painting showing a lady leaning against a balustrade in a garden setting, mid eighteenth century, at Saltram, Devon. ©National Trust Images/Rob Matheson

They appear to be accurate records of dress and accoutrements, but they are also uncannily reminiscent of the statuettes and pictures of ‘mandarins’ and ‘long Elizas’ which had adorned European interiors for centuries.

Porcelain shop, Xiangtan, 1900-1920, from the Banister collection featured by Visualising China

Westerners also collected photographs of shops, including those selling that iconic Chinese product, porcelain.

Lage Chinese blue and white porcelain lidded vase, Kangxi period (1662-1723), at Dunham Massey, Cheshire. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

It is interesting that Fu Bingchang’s photograph collection did not include images of such humble commercial sites, which would have been well below his radar as a cultivated man of state.

Huxinting, the Willow Pattern tea house, Shanghai, 1890-1900, from the Book Illustrations collection featured by Visualising China

Fu had himself photographed surrounded by his classical landscape paintings, a traditional signifier of good taste. Western visitors and officials, by contrast, were interested in more quirky and ‘exotic’ scenery.

Glazed earthenware plate decorated with the Willow Pattern, Spode, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, 1800-1820, in the Victoria & Albert Museum. © V&A Images

It is telling that they associated a landmark tea house in Shanghai with the ‘Willow Pattern’, the Staffordshire pseudo-Chinese decorative pattern – fiction was clearly more poweful than reality.

It is one of the beneficial side-effects of Visualising China that we can now make these comparisons, between different photographic collections, between photographs and other images of China, and between different levels of fiction and reality.

The lost world of Fu Bingchang

July 13, 2012

Min Chin with a camera, Northern Hot Springs, February 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

Photographs taken in China before about 1950 are relatively rare. During the Cultural Revolution many Chinese destroyed their collections of photographs, as any evidence of a ‘bourgeois’ past could get you into serious trouble.

Fu Bingchang and Sun Ke, 1920s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

Some collections of photographs of China have been preserved elsewhere, but until recently most of those were fairly difficult to access. Professor Robert Bickers of the University of Bristol has been instrumental in making a number of those collections available through the Visualising China website, where more than 8,000 images can now be explored.

Woman sitting in a cane chair, 1910s-1920s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

These pictures include views of cities which have since completely changed, portraits of individual Chinese both eminent and humble, and records of everyday life. Some of the collections came from British people who were working in China as part of mercantile, imperial or missionary enterprises. Others are photographs taken and collected by Chinese that somehow ended up outside China.

Fu Bingchang with two women, 1930s – early 1940s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

One of these collections comes from Fu Bingchang (1895-1965), who held various posts in the Nationalist government and was also a keen amateur photographer. His snaps provide a very personal glimpse of elite life in China between the 1920s and 1940s.

Fu Bingchang and Wang Chonghui standing in front of a motor car on a country road, c. 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

The images show a society poised between tradition and modernity. As well as cameras, motor cars and bathing suits, they include traditional architecture, gardens and furniture. Exemplifying this period of huge change in Chinese society, women are often portrayed wearing the cheongsam (or qipao) dress, based on male Manchu dress but adopted by women from the 1920s onwards as a modern, progressive fashion and accessorised with scarves and handbags (as was recently explained to me by WESSIELING). Fu Binchang himself is sometimes portrayed in traditional dress and sometimes in up-to-the-minute plusfours and co-respondent shoes.

Jiang Fangling with round window, c. 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

An image of a Fang Jiangling next to a round window to me exemplifies this fascinating hybridity: the window is of a type that had been used for centuries in Chinese garden walls to provide enticing and nicely framed glimpses of greenery and vistas beyond. At the same time, Fang Jiangling’s pose next to it is somehow very moderne, as she grasps the edge of the window like an Art Deco sylph playing with a ball or a Bauhaus mannequin manipulating a cog in a machine.

Fu Bingchang in the dormitory of the Legislative Yuan, Sichuan, 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

This image database is yet another example of the opening up and linking of online collections that I have mentioned in previous posts. Thanks to Visualising China Fu Binchang’s world can now be reappraised and studied in greater detail.

A slideshow of images from Visualising China with audio commentary is available on the BBC website, and a programme on BBC Radio 4 about the project can be accessed through the BBC iPlayer.


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