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In Session: Imaginaries in Motion: Early Transnational Photography in and beyond Asia
1: John Thomson and Chinese Spaces
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of California, Irvine, United States
John Thomson (1837-1921), author and photographer, produced the first photographic book on China with his famous Illustrations of China and Its People(1873-74). Profusely illustrated with over 200 of his photographs on a variety of subjects, the book offers a model for 19th-century western visual accounts of China, merging a pictorial travelogue with comments on Chinese history, culture, institutions – and Chinese people -- as conveyed through photographs. Among Thomson’s contributions are his ability to convey information and experience through his photographs. This paper proposes examining Thomson’s China photography through his framing of Chinese spaces and his innovative explorations and definitions of such spaces, specifically in his renderings of the Chinese street. Thomson constantly experimented withthe possibilities of the street view, whether as a venue for picturing native habitats, built environment, social structures, local infrastructure, commercial activity, or exotic fantasy. His presentation of these spaces also gave him the opportunity to position himself within and without those spaces as guide, raconteur, and witness. By considering Thomson’s street photographs and stereoviews, this paper will consider how these photographs opened up Chinese views and spaces to his European viewers, Thomson’s visual and rhetorical strategies in these spaces, and how they position photographer, subject, and audience relative to each other.