Photography and China

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Before the arrival of photography, the Western imagination of China was based on paintings, written travelogues and dispatches from a seemingly far-off land. From the s, however, a band of pioneering Western photographers sought to capture the country's landscapes, cities and people, captivating audiences back home and sparking a homegrown photography movement in the process.

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Among them were the Italian Felice Beato, who arrived in China in the s to document Anglo-French exploits in the Second Opium War, and Scottish photographer John Thompson, whose journey up the Min River offered people in the West a rare look into the country's remote interior. Scottish photographer John Thompson documented his travels up the Min River, offering a rare look at remote areas of China.

These are just some of the figures whose work features in a 15,strong photo collection amassed by New York antiquarian and collector Stephan Loewentheil.

Shanghai takes center stage in China's burgeoning photography scene. A rare book dealer by trade, Loewentheil has spent the last three decades acquiring the pictures from auctions and collectors, both in and outside China. They form what he claims to be the world's largest private collection of early Chinese photography.

Rare 19th-century images show China at the dawn of photography

And given the number of artworks and artifacts lost in the country's turbulent 20th century -- during Mao's Cultural Revolution, in particular -- the claim is entirely reasonable. Now, he has put of the prints on display in Beijing for the first time. The exhibition's scope runs from the s, the very genesis of paper photographs in China, until the s. It features examples of the earliest forms of photography, such as albumen print, which uses egg whites to bind chemicals to paper, and the "wet plate" process, in which negatives were processed on glass plates in a portable dark room.

The 15,strong photo collection features everyday Chinese tradespeople from the midth century, like this weaver. After being developed, some of the images were hand-colored by painters.

randian - At China: Early Photography and Photographic Technique

These technological developments heralded the birth of commercial photography in China, as they allowed images to be quickly replicated and spread for the very first time. Chinese photographers then picked up on that, and served both markets. Chen Man: 'Tech and art must go together'. Chinese pioneers.

Photography and China

Despite the prominent role of foreigners in early Chinese photography, the exhibition -- and Loewentheil's collection at large -- also aims to honor the achievement of the country's own practitioners. Some purchased cameras from departing Westerners looking to sell their cumbersome equipment, while others took advantage of Chinese innovation in the field, such as mathematician Zou Boqi, who used foreign-made products to design his own glass plate camera.

An image of two actors taken by pioneering Chinese photographer Lai Afong.

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Photography studios spread through China in the latter half of the 19th century. Sign in. Become an FT subscriber to read: Delayed exposure: contemporary photography in China Explore the new agenda We live in a time of disruption but where others see difficulty, we see opportunity - not just to survive but to thrive. Choose your subscription. For 4 weeks receive unlimited Premium digital access to the FT's trusted, award-winning business news.

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