Photography came to China at the start of the 1860s, introduced by foreigners but enthusiastically embraced by natives. In the decades leading up to the twentieth century, every incarnation of the new technology managed to replicate itself in the Chinese popular consciousness: formal landscapes, official portraiture, personal documentation, and architectural and street scenes. These extraordinarily rare images are the meat of Sheying: Shades of China 1850-1900, opening September 15th at Throckmorton Fine Art.
The black-and-white photos, a mixture of work by transplanted Europeans and fledgling Chinese photographers, have the painterly shades and delicate composition of Europe’s ongoing pictorialism movement. But the pictures are unmistakably Chinese in subject matter. In a cramped Cantonese street, stall banners blot out the sky. Two prisoners pose stoically in cangues. There are countless images of harbors, filled with the bobbing handmade boats that powered the national economy. For all the influence the relatively established European photographers held, China proved itself to be an inimitable sitter. The collection provides a fascinating look at an empire before industrialization.
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