Edinburgh photographer who brought the Far East to the world remembers the centenary

ByDavid M. Conte

Sep 30, 2021

Today the life and work of the Edinburgh-born photographer and traveler have been celebrated on the centenary of his death with a plaque installed in his childhood home in Brighton Street in the Old Town, where he has was raised by his tobacconist father.

Thomson left Edinburgh in 1862 for Singapore, before venturing deep into China, Cambodia and present-day Thailand to record rarely seen people and places, with a camera measuring one cubic meter and a darkroom of tipi style attached to its back.

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Thomson took numerous photographs of Manchu brides and their magnificent wedding costumes. He was sympathetic to the life of these young teenage brides, which he saw as a life of slavery, in which the woman “is even liable to be beaten by her mother-in-law, and her husband too, if she neglects to. perform their duties as “general domestic worker”.

The sight of a Westerner with a giant camera – which most had never seen before – caused some alarm in parts rarely visited by foreigners.

Betty Yao, of the John Thomson Centennial Remembrance Group, said, “Thomson was very human, very lovable and he did not speak Chinese, but he managed to develop this relationship with the model with this universal story.

“He respected the Guardian. It didn’t matter if it was the King of Siam or a street trader, he connected with them. You can see it in their eyes.

“He was open-minded and sensitive to the life and environment of his subjects.”

Chinese ministers at the Foreign Office, Beijing, 1871.

An exhibition of Thomson’s work in China, which has toured the world, has now arrived in Edinburgh. It will be exhibited at Heriot-Watt University where, in its early days, Thomson studied at night school in the 1850s.

His interest in photography intensified as the art of photography developed at a rapid pace in the capital, with figures such as David Octavius ​​Hill and Robert Adamson at the forefront of new innovation.

“Edinburgh was at the center of the development of photography then, it was like a Silicon Valley of its time,” Ms. Yao added.

Thomson left in 1862 and set up a studio in Singapore.

In Imperial Beijing, traders and street vendors were predominantly Chinese or Muslim, with “shops” carried on their shoulders and their owners walking from street to street while calling to advertise their wares.

What followed was an unprecedented body of work from a part of the world generally just captured on a small scale by missionaries, government officials, and traders. He is thus considered to be one of the pioneers of photojournalism.

Tours to present-day Malaysia, Sumatra and Sri Lanka followed, and in 1865 he arrived in present-day Thailand to photograph King Mongkut of Siam and his government on several occasions.

A grueling expedition to Cambodia followed, where his mission to photograph the ruins of Angkor Wat ended in malaria, which temporarily rendered him unable to walk.

As he captured wealth, he also recorded desperation as China’s rapid population growth strained food supplies and led to extreme poverty, especially in rural areas.

John Thomson with two Manchurian soldiers, 1871. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Thomson’s footage includes a series about Foundling Hospitals in Fukien, where families sold their babies – and girls sold for much less than boys.

Thomson worked in the collodion technique, where a glass plate is coated with chemicals and exposed to the camera, before being coated with another acidic mixture.

The kit necessary for his images – as well as the terrain on which he sailed – made Thomson’s work hard-fought, but photography was the traveler’s true ally given the “perfect mimicry of the scene presented, and lasting proof. of faithfully executed work, ”he wrote.

China Through the Lens of John Thomson is taking place at the James Watt Center at Heriot-Watt University until March 25, 2022.

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Nankou Pass, Changping County on the outskirts of Beijing. Located between two high mountains, it has been of strategic importance throughout history. From here you can see the first spur of the Great Wall.


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