Studio portrait of a Chinese woman (c) 2012 Jamie Carstairs

Old Photographs Fever: The Search for China’s Pictured Past

Just a quick post to tell you about a programme I heard on BBC Radio 4 last week, Old Photographs Fever – The Search for China’s Pictured Past.

Old Photographs Fever on BBC iPlayer

It talks about the current interest in historical photographs in China and discusses why so much material from the late 19th and 20th century has been lost.

A new and intense appetite for images of the country’s past has resulted in a publishing phenomenon: sales of books and magazines filled with historical photographs have rocketed. China’s turbulent history in the twentieth century meant that archives of all kinds were destroyed: in warfare and revolutions. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-9, the process was continued by the Red Guard. People also destroyed their own – now dangerously bourgeois – family albums. Nearly a century of photographic history was erased.

The photographs that do survive were mostly taken by foreigners, living in or visiting China, who took them out of the country to safety. Professor Robert Bickers at the University of Bristol is leading the search to collect and digitise these photographs in order to restore a historical vision of China which is unfamiliar and fascinating to its citizens now. The online collection is extraordinary in its range and reflects all aspects of life in China. There are studio portraits, gruesome police photos, industrial and rural landscapes, tourist snaps and family albums.

One of the jewels in the collection is the work of Fu Bingchang, a senior Chinese diplomat, whose access to the elite of Chinese society in the first half of the twentieth century and whose talent as a photographer make for a unique and beautiful set of images. The photos were given by Fu’s son Foo Chung Hung (Johnny) and his granddaughter Yee Wah, who recall finding them in twelve leather trunks of possessions which were smuggled out of China.

The Visualising China project, based at the University of Bristol, is doing an amazing job of tracking down, archiving and digitising these rare photos and what’s even better is that the entire collection of over 8000 images is freely accessible online. You can keep up with news and highlights from the project at the Visualising China blog. It’s where I found this rather gorgeous Surrealist studio portrait:

Studio portrait of a Chinese woman (c) 2012 Jamie Carstairs

(c) 2012 Jamie Carstairs

video with excerpts from the programme and a slideshow of photos is on the BBC website – highly recommended. Emile de Bruijn of the fantastic National Trust Treasure Hunt blog also posted about The lost world of Fu Bingchang.

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2 thoughts on “Old Photographs Fever: The Search for China’s Pictured Past

  1. One of the jewels in the collection is the work of Fu Bingchang, a senior Chinese diplomat, whose access to the elite of Chinese society in the first half of the twentieth century and whose talent as a photographer make for a unique and beautiful set of images. The photos were given by Fu’s son Foo Chung Hung (Johnny) and his granddaughter Yee Wah, who recall finding them in twelve leather trunks of possessions which were smuggled out of China.

    • Yes, they are fantastic photographs and the story of how they ended up being stashed in all those suitcases just reminds you of how close all that history came to being destroyed.

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