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HomeContentsThemes > Early landscape photography of Asia

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Parts of Asia were thrown into turmoil during the nineteenth century as the European and American governments used military power to force their commercial interests and missionary zeal. Photography was a witness at a time when commercial relationships and trading ports were evolving into military occupations or heavy handed influence through diplomatic pressure.
European contacts with Asia had existed since the sixteenth century when Portuguese explorers had established Goa in India (1510), Malacca in Malaysia (1511) and a permanent presence at Macao in China in around 1553. These trading connections expanded into the powerful Dutch and British companies that enforced their commercial interests through military actions.
  • India
    The British dominated India through the East India Company until the Indian Mutiny / First War of Indian Independence (1857) after which it passed to the British Crown with Queen Victoria becoming Empress of India under the Royal Titles Act in 1877.
  • China
    European relationships with China in the 1830's and 40's were complex due to different legal systems and jurisdictions with the foreign powers wanting their citizens to be exempt from Chinese law. Foreign merchants were trading in opium and when an incorruptible Chinese official, Lin Tse-hsü, banned the trade a pretext for war was found. The Chinese forces were no match for warships and European armaments and following the First Chinese Opium War / First Anglo/Chinese War (1839-41) and British gained trading ports and a lease on Hong Kong Island under the Treaty of Nanking (1842).
  • Japan
    Japan had been closed to almost all foreign trade and contact since the seventeenth century when in 1853 the black ships of Commander Matthew Perry's American fleet commenced visits to seek trade concessions, coal refueling stops and fair treatment of shipwrecked sailors.
This context is important as it helps explain the different types of photography in each country. In India the diverse states were largely held together by local forces with British military officers who often spent their entire careers there and as one of their leisure activities took photographs. Professional photographers took images for the officers, their relatives and the many scholars who studied the vast country. In China missionaries had a large influence and photographers also accompanied the military campaigns. When Japan was opened to foreign trade photographers like Felice Beato and Adolfo Farsari (studio in Yokohama) lived there for extended periods recording the changes as what was essentially a Medieval society underwent rapid transition into an industrialized one. As the markets for photographic products evolved so local photographers increased in standing although this remains a neglected research area.
Given the extent of the colonial empires run by the European powers at the time photography was discovered it is not surprising that many military officers, missionaries, traders, diplomats and colonial administrators honed their skills in locations that were remote and exotic to their European contemporaries.
Accompanying the early traders, and often preceding military interventions, Christian missionaries went out from Europe and North America with the intention of saving the souls of pagans. Sometimes the societies limited themselves to specific geographical areas for example the China Inland Mission worked in China and South East Asia but there were many others including the Council for World Mission, The Methodist Missionary Society and those run by the Presbyterian Church of England that covered wider areas. The missionaries took with them glass lantern slides to educate the indigenous populations and at the same time took photographs that could be used to educate their home communities and to raise funds for further work. The photographic works of people like Father Leone Nani, born in Albino (Italy) in 1880, who was a missionary in China's inland regions from 1903 until 1914 are not well known. The archives of missionary societies are, as yet, a largely untapped resource for the history of Asian photography.
Military operations were recorded with Felice Beato photographing the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny (1858), the Second Chinese Opium War (1856-1860) and the military operations in Japan (1864). John Burke accompanied the British Army expedition to Afghanistan (1878) and a collection of his photographs is held by Brown University Library. Lieutenant-Colonel Willoughby Wallace Hooper took photographs that were later published in 1887 of the 1885 British expeditionary force to Burma [Burmah].
Other military officers such as Linnaeus Tripe and John Murray created detailed records of Indian monuments and cities. Lesser known photographers, such as Captain Edmund David Lyon, played a key role by producing illustrated books that highlighted the archaeological and architectural antiquities of India. From 1867 to 1868 Lyon was commissioned by the Madras and Bombay Governments to record the ancient monuments and his findings were published in "Photographs to Illustrate the Ancient Architecture of Southern India".
Some of the most important European photographers in Asia were:
  • Linnaeus Tripe (1822-1902) was active in India from 1839 until 1875. Whilst an officer in the Madras Infantry in 1855 he was attached as official photographer to the diplomatic mission from India to the Burmese capital at Amarapura and he took one hundred and twenty views. These were included in Views in Burma taken during the Mission to Ava.
  • Samuel Bourne (1834-1912) - English photographer, best known for his work in India and the Himalayas (1863-1869)
  • Federico Peliti (1844-1914) took photographs of India during the Victorian period.
  • John Murray (1809-1896) in the mid 19th century took architectural and landscape views of the vicinity of Agra in India using waxed paper negatives. The photographic collection of John Murray was varied and of extraordinary quality.
and numerous others. These early photographers were not specific in what they shot as their aim was frequently to recoup the costs of their trips - because of this they took landscapes, buildings, monuments and local 'color' as well.
Asia - Nineteenth century
India Through the Lens: Photography 1840-1911 
Vidya Dehejia (Editor)
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Lost China : The Photographs of Leone Nani 
Clara Bufoni (Author); Anna Pozzi (Author); & Leone Nani (Photographer)
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Although the 'western' photographers are better known in the standard texts it needs to be stressed that there were also local photographers such as Lala Deen Dayal (1844-1910) whose company employed over 50 staff photographing most aspects of Indian life. In Hong Kong the Chinese photographer Lai Afong was active from the 1860's to the 1880's.
Local early photographers in Asia
Lala Deen Dayal
Ancient gateway at Rewa 
Lai Afong
The Bankers‘ Glen, Yuen-foo River 
Rajendra Lal Mitra
Temple Doorway, Orissa, India 
[Antiquities of Orissa (Plate LVII)] 
The most popular histories of photography have been written in Europe and North America and have concentrated on the works of photographers that could be more easily found in the collections of those countries. This perspective is to a certain extent inevitable as the Europeans brought the equipment and techniques with them as they traveled through Asia. The roles played by local photographers such as Lala Deen Dayal (1844-1910) in India and Lai Afong in China are now being studied more seriously and no doubt others will be added into the canon of major photographers.
O.P. Sharma in his article "150 years of Indian photography" (PSA Journal [Photographic Society of America], Dec, 1990) cites early works by Indian photographers including as Dr. N. Dajee, Nasserwanjee, Ahmed Ali Khan, Raja Ishwar Chandra Singh, Rajendra Lal Mitra and Prodyot Kumar Tagore.
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