Photographer John Thomson’s photos give glimpse into life in Far East
These historic images of the Far East captured by Scottish photographer John Thomson will be exhibited in London for the first time this month.
The incredible negatives were taken during 1862 and 1872 when Thomson set off to Asia for the first time. Throughout his 10-year expedition, he recorded daily lives of east Asian people, as well as the royals and became the first photographer who documented Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument found.
The Scottish photographer and writer was able to capture the individuality and humanity of the diverse people of Asia, whether royalty or street vendor.
Scottish photographer John Thomson travelled to east Asia in 1862 and started capturing the wonders in various countries. He moved from Singapore to Siam (now Thailand) and captured this wonderful view of Chao Phraya River, pictured, in 1865. Thomson carried heavy glass plates and a portable dark room to print the images on the negatives.
Thomson was lucky to photograph King Mongkut (left), the fourth monarch of Siam and followed him to attend royal ceremonies. Thomson, then 29 years old, was the first photographer to document Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world (right). His pictures of the Far East gave viewers unique historical values.
In 1862, Thomson travelled to Singapore where he opened his first photographic studio and became a professional photographer.
He used the method of wet collodion process, where an exposure was made onto a glass negative with highly flammable liquids. This had to be done in complete darkness, on location, in a portable darkroom tent.
It took sheer perseverance and energy, through difficult terrain, to document regions where previously unseen by westerners. It is particularly remarkable that Thomson was able to make photographs of such beauty and sensitivity.
Fascinated by the Asian culture and its people, Thomson set off to Siam where he was able to photograph King Mongkut, Rama IV, and his royal family together with royal ceremonies in 1865. He also captured the panoramic views of the Chao Phraya River, temples and monks.
The professional photographer also walked in the city of Siam to capture local people’s lives. The stunning images of a Siamese young boy (left) and a boatman (right) reflected the local culture and living standard of the country. Most of these images were previously unseen by westerners.
John Thomson was seen as an important figure in nineteenth century travel and documentary photography. He was fascinated by Asia and its people and spent 10 years documenting in the Far East. He travelled to China by the end of 1867 and documented a large variety of subjects, from landscapes to people.
He went to China via Hong Kong and visited Macau, Chaozhou, Santou before he went north to Fuzhou and the River Min. He carried the heavy gear as well as flammable liquids and fragile glass plates throughout the journey. The landscape of houses built with tile roofs, pictured, was one of the many images that Thomson had captured.
The 180-year-old pictures added unique values to the history when the 29-year-old Thomson travelled to Cambodia and became the first photographer to visit Angkor Wat, what is now, one of the most important sites of ancient architecture in the world.
In 1867, Thomson settled in Hong Kong and documented another set of images capturing local Cantonese people.
From then on, he started an expedition in different provinces of China, including Macau, Chaozhou, Shanghai as well as the imperial capital, Beijing.
In China, Thomson captured a wide variety of subjects from landscapes to people, architecture, domestic and street scenes.
Dr Michael Pritchard, Chief Executive of The Royal Photographic Society and photo-historian commented: ‘John Thomson is a key figure in nineteenth-century travel and documentary photography and this exhibition, which is long overdue, finally gives proper recognition to his career and stunning imagery’
It was not easy for a foreigner to photograph females in Asian countries but Thomson managed to take portraits of an old Cantonese woman (left) and a boatwoman (right) when he was in Hong Kong. The pictures were believed to be taken in his photography studio in 1868. Most of his images presented a faithful account of the people of Asia.
The aesthetic quality of John Thomson’s vision mark him out as one of the most important travel photographers. This body of work established him as a pioneer of photojournalism and one of the most influential photographers of his time. He took the images using the method of wet collodion process, where an exposure was made onto a glass negative with highly flammable liquids.
Most of Thomson’s photos showcased his journeys from one of the most extensive records of ny region taken in the ninteenth century. Thomson travelled East as a professional photographer only two decades after the invention of photography.The panoramic view of Hong Kong harbour where a ship was seen is a unique historical treasure.
As a foreigner, Thomson’s ability to gain access to photograph women was particularly remarkable. Whether photographing the rich and famous or people in the streets going about their business, Thomson’s desire was to present a faithful account of the people of Asia.
This body of work established him as a pioneer of photojournalism and one of the most influential photographers of his time.
Photographs from these journeys form one of the most extensive records of any region taken in the nineteenth century. The range, depth and aesthetic quality of John Thomson’s vision mark him out as one of the most important travel photographers.
His collection of 700 glass plates travelled back with Thomson to Britain in 1872 and since 1921 has been housed and expertly preserved at the Wellcome Library, London.
Thomson’s archive will be shown from 13 April to 23 June this year at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS, University of London.
Between 1868 and 1872, Thomson made extensive trips to Beijing, Fujian and Guangdong travelling down both the Yangtse and the Min Rivers. In China, Thomson captured a wide variety of subjects from landscapes to people, architecture, domestic and street scenes. The Scottish photographer travelled to different provinces in China where he met some Buddhist monks (left) and a Manchu bride (right)
In October 1871 Thomson left Beijing for Shanghai, then downstream along the Yangtze river. In Hankou and Yichang he photographed the Three Gorges. On his way back to Shanghai, he stopped briefly in Jiujiang, Nanjing and Ningbo. He also took a picture of Nankou Pass, a gateway to the city through the Great Wall in Beijing.