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The viewfinder from China

Exhibitions at the Getty Center and the Pomona College Museum of Art put the focus on photography and China.

February 23, 2011|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • "Three Coolies" photographed by Lai Afong.
"Three Coolies" photographed by Lai Afong. (Afong, Lai, The Getty Research…)

China and the West are embroiled today in lively, sometimes rancorous exchanges about Internet freedom and search-engine censorship.

But since the late 1830s, another revolutionary technology, also imported from the West, has been radically reshaping Chinese culture, chronicling the nation's internal upheavals and providing a snapshot of its shifting relations with the outside world: photography.


FOR THE RECORD:
China photography: A photo caption with an article in the Feb. 23 Calendar on China photography exhibits at Southland museums misspelled the name of Li Hongzhang as Li Johngzhang. —

This winter and spring, four exhibitions — three at the Getty Center and one at the Pomona College Museum of Art — are supplying an unusually wide-open view of how the photographic medium has molded the way that foreigners historically have regarded Chinese society.

But the more subtle change that the four shows collectively trace is how China has gone from being depicted mainly through Western photographers' eyes to taking charge of its own self-representation. In the mid-19th century, China's photographic image was frequently a projection of Westerners' cultural biases, "Orientalist" fantasies and military goals.

In the early 21st century, Chinese photography is increasingly being made by and for the Chinese themselves.

"I think it's useful for people to see how the Chinese are seeing themselves [today], because they're making this work primarily for themselves, not with the West in mind," said A.D. Coleman, an art critic and historian who curated the Pomona's exhibition of contemporary documentary photography, "China: Insights."

The century and a half that the four shows cover coincides with some of the most tumultuous episodes of China's 5,000-year history: the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s; the invasion and occupation of large swathes of China by Western armies; the Revolution of 1911; the establishment of the Communist government in 1949; the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s; and the subsequent economic boom that today has made China the world's second-largest economy after the United States.

Photographers began capturing those transformations in the late 1830s, soon after cameras were introduced by Western merchants and entrepreneurs who were pushing to open new Asian markets — backed by British and French gunboat diplomacy. At the Getty, that story is laid out in the compact but provocative one-room exhibition "Brush and Shutter: Early Photography in China," on view through May 1.

The show's title alludes to the way that Chinese artists quickly embraced the new photographic medium and gradually grafted it onto China's existing traditions and aesthetic conventions of pictorial representation, including portraiture and landscape painting, said Jeffrey W. Cody, a senior project specialist in the education department at the Getty Conservation Institute, and Frances Terpak, curator of photographs at the Getty Research Institute.

A parallel Getty exhibition, "Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road," focuses on the output of one of the first Western artists to open a visual pathway into Asia with his camera lens. In a long, prolific career, the Italian-born Beato (1832-1909) documented vast areas of what was once called the Far East, including China, India, Japan, Korea and Burma (present-day Myanmar). By carefully cultivating personal relationships with British military brass, Beato was able to tag along on several key expeditions of British colonial forces, including the Second Opium War. His eye for decaying temples, passive-looking peasants and other stereotypically "exotic" aspects of Asian societies made him a commercially successful favorite among Victorian-era collectors.

As a result of their victories in the Opium Wars of the middle 1800s, Europe's Great Powers had forced China to open several strategically located ports, including Hong Kong and Shanghai, to more European trade. In those decades, a number of U.S. and European photographers arrived in China to make portraits of noble families, record vistas of everyday life (some spontaneous, others staged in studios) and produce lyrical, fanciful images of rural landscapes and urban street scenes. Most of these images were destined for foreign consumption through Western export markets.

At first photography, like modern European weaponry, shocked the Middle Kingdom's complacent sense of its cultural superiority to the Western barbarians. "China for centuries thought of itself as the center of the world," Cody said, "and what they began to realize is, 'Oh my goodness, there's a whole other world out there that is very powerful and has technologies that maybe we should be integrating.' "

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