SAN DIEGO — Whatever may be the judgment on its method, Mr. Thomson's book is in substance a most valuable assistance to the understanding of its subject. No picture of Chinese manners at once so full and so vivid has yet been attempted; for, admitting the many artistic faults of photography, there is assuredly no other process by which we are set in such intimate relation with facts remote from us in point either of place or time.
--Pall Mall Gazette, Nov. 11, 1874
This critical appraisal of John Thomson's "China and Its People" is as appropriate today as it was 112 years ago.
On view at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park through Oct. 12 are 161 images by the 19th-Century Scots photographer. Entitled "John Thomson, a Window to the Orient," the major part of the exhibit consists of photographs made throughout Asia from 1862 to 1872. It also includes photographs from Thomson's most famous published work, "Street Life in London" (1876-1877), and from "Through Cyprus With the Camera" (1878).
The museum is the sole West Coast stop for this exhibit curated by photo historian and Los Angeles-based dealer Stephen White. His fully illustrated catalogue includes an essay that is remarkably concise, although rich with human interest and technical information.
The Thomson exhibit illustrates the importance of such documents of visual history. They convey information more fully than words.
Thomson was one of the many intrepid Victorians who ventured into exotic areas, not to conquer, settle and exploit, but to study and record.
With today's cameras that automatically perform all functions but the selection of subjects and the clicking of the shutter, it is easy to forget how arduous it was to transport and use the bulky, delicate equipment, with the necessary supplies and a portable darkroom. Thomson traveled with several sizes of cameras (at least two, usually three).
Consider also the physical surroundings, the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia and its diseases, such as malaria, which he contracted.
Not the least of Thomson's difficulties were the suspicions of peoples unacquainted with photography. Imagine the hostility of those he encountered who believed that he made his photographs out of the eyes of Chinese babies.
His special interest was the Chinese, how they existed outside their own culture as well as inside it.
His unjudgmental curiosity about and sensitivity to what he saw was admirable. His portrait of a dirty, but lovely, Siamese girl is as poignant as his portrait of the king of Cambodia is regal.
He photographed lepers and beggars in the street as well as wealthy Chinese families in the courtyards of their impressive residences.
He photographed men at work and at worship in Buddhist temples. His "Night Watchman" is so strong that you anticipate sound from the subject's wide-open mouth.
He photographed women of wealth with elaborate coiffures and robes, and poor disheveled women in rags.
It is remarkable that his images of people were posed, even when they appear to be the most unaffected. His ability "to create naturalness was unusual for his time," according to White.
Thomson's photographs of the Chinese landscape evince what seems to be the natural photogeneity of that part of the world. His works reflected the influence of Victorian aesthetician and social reformer John Ruskin, as much in his empathy for the poor as in his attitudes towards art. He sought to, and did, convey the humanness of his subjects (without, however, falling into the sentimentality that Ruskin favored).
Like Ruskin, he sought and found the natural order or structure in nature.
"My share in the composition is very small indeed," he wrote. "I have only permitted nature to do what she is always willing to do, if photographers do not stand in her way."
There are many wonderfully artful photographs in the exhibit, but there are also some whose interest is merely documentary and others that are no more interesting than postcards. Thomson was seeking to support a family, after all. He ended his years as a society portraitist.
For all the refinement of his technique and enthusiasm for his medium, Thomson seems to have lacked consciousness of himself as an artist. Nevertheless, he produced more works of artistic merit than many who claim to be artists and yet produce little if anything of comparable worth.
The law firm of Lillick, McHose and Charles sponsored the Thomson exhibit in the first of what museum Director Arthur Ollman hopes will be an on-going series of firm-sponsored events.