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JOHN THOMSON: WINDOW TO THE ORIENT by Stephen White (University of New Mexico Press: $29.95)

September 03, 1989|SONJA BOLLE

One of the great 19th-Century European traveler-photographers, John Thomson visited China and Southeast Asia during the 1860s and 1870s, when relatively little was known about their cultures in the West. His charm and skill with languages enabled him to photograph subjects inaccessible to most Westerners, including a portrait of King Mongkut of Siam (the king of "The King and I") and the interior of a mandarin's home. His respectful treatment of his subjects is refreshingly free of the patronizing racism that typified English attitudes toward Asians. The modern reader is less likely to be impressed by the historical significance of Thomson's sepia-toned photographs than by their exquisite beauty.

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