Issue #185  11/4/2011
Bennett's History of Early China Photos

By Matt Damsker


By Terry Bennett. 2009, Bernard Quaritch Ltd., London. 308 pgs., with more than 150 photographs and illustrations. ISBN No. 978-0-9550852-4-6. Information: http://www.quaritch.com ; email: rarebooks@quaritch.com .

Following on his important 2006 study, "Photography in Japan 1853-1912" (Quaritch), Terry Bennett has delivered the first comprehensive history of China's early photography. Bennett's scholarly rigor and cogent writing make this one of the year's most notable explorations, as we learn that before 1861, photography in China was almost exclusively undertaken by foreigners--not only commercial photographers, but also soldiers, diplomats, traders, and missionaries.

The earliest use of the camera in China noted was the lost or failed daguerreotypes of 1842, taken along the Yangtze River during the end of the First Opium War by assistants to the British envoy. From there, Bennett chronicles the earliest extant photos of China by France's Jules Itier, and the first commercial studios, in Hong Kong, established by the near-forgotten likes of George R. West, who was also an excellent painter. But itinerant photographers such as Herman Husband and Cesar von Duben were able to make a better living than the studio pioneers, Bennett explains, since they could pack up and move on when demand for their work waned.

By the 1850s, the first Shanghai studios of Louis Legrand and others resulted in some superb albumen-print stereoviews of China's great city, capturing its bridges and gardens with evocative detail.

Indeed, these excellent images are where photography in China begins to develop real momentum, and Bennett provides an engaging narrative and a lot of context for his examinations of the numerous amateurs and professionals who brought the medium to successive heights there. Pierre Joseph Rossier, for example, was the first commercial photographer to tour the country, with the aim of bringing China images back to Europe, where they were the first commercial views of China to be published; he also taught photography to many Asians along the way. And Milton M. Miller's stately portraiture, following the Second Opium War in 1860, is among the finest anywhere, at any time.

Historically, of course, this early era of photography in China climaxes with the Second Opium War, which drew countless photographers to the conflict. The greatest of these, Felice Beato, captured indelible images not only of China's culture and personages but also of the war, including an astonishing two-plate panorama of Taku Fort after its capture in 1860 and several other panoramic images of war's devastation, with dead soldiers sprawled amid blasted fortifications. These classic images tell their tale--of colonialism's tragic human toll--as well as any textual account, yet Bennett provides a summary of the war's key events; this helps us comprehend the drama that enveloped the country and enhances our appreciation of these unique battleground images.

True to form, Bennett delivers a highly readable and richly referenced history, with helpful regional chronology, notes and indexing. He'll continue his scholarship of China's photography in future volumes, and no doubt they'll be as absorbing as this one.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

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