“Photography in Imperial China”

Asia Society (New York)

From this statement prefacing his show, it follows naturally that Worswick should arrive at the conclusion with which his excellent essay “Photography in Imperial China” ends:

It is in the work of heretofore unknown photographers . . . that the true importance of the camera’s contribution to history can be measured. For it is in the mass of attributed and unattributed images that the new medium of photography was able to capture and preserve the look of imperial China.

As long as you think of all photographs as facts, all are on at least one level equivalent. No matter how much we know about the person who made it, every photograph is in a sense anonymous, and the most awkward snapshot by an amateur can have value as great as the unique compositions of a professional. Weston Naef took precisely this point of view a few years ago in a book on China called Behind the Great Wall, where landscapes by John Thomson were juxtaposed with snapshots made by Edgar Snow’s wife. And Worswick is taking the same point of view when he prizes photography above all as a “mass of attributed and unattributed images.”

Ironically, this description would seem to fit Michael Hoffman s exhibition better than Worswick’s own. When you walked into the galleries in which Hoffman’s China show had been hung in Philadelphia, you were confronted with 200 photographs arranged without formal divisions or categories and almost completely free from explanatory wall labels except those identifying, where possible, the photographer, subject and year. Next to a picture by a recognized photographer like John Thomson or Felice Beato you might find an unattributed one from the commercial firm of Underwood and Underwood, and next to that one by the botanist E. H. Wilson. The reason Hoffman decided not to offer the viewer any explanatory material may be that, unlike Worswick, he doesn’t know enough about China to be able to offer much. (Terse as they are, a number of Hoffman’s wall labels contain mistakes anyway.) Whatever the reason that Hoffman presented his show as he did, though, the effect is that in it we truly do seem to have just “a mass of attributed and unattributed images.”

When you walked into the gallery at Asia House, by contrast, you were offered a good deal of marginalia on Chinese history and custom to help guide you through the show. And what at least part of Worswick’s show is also offering is an alternative to the whole idea that a photograph is just a fact. The contrary view would be that some photographs are works of art in their own right. and that the gifted photographer overcomes by his art the limitations of his time. More than a stereotype of the Victorian or the Imperialist, he becomes an individual, an auteur whose work expresses unique and personal values. Although the first part of the Asia Society show uses photographs simply to document various aspects of Chinese life—uses them, in other words, as facts—the second part shifts gears in order to represent photography as an art and the photographer as an auteur.

At one point the battle scenes and panoramas done by Felice Beato are all grouped together on a wall by themselves. Elsewhere John Thomson and the very interesting early 20th-century photographer Donald Mennie each get a wall, and a portrait photographer named Miller who is essentially Mr. Worswick’s discovery gets almost an entire room to himself. (Although it is Hoffman’s show which is called “The Face of China,” it is Worswick’s which has, because of the emphasis on Miller, by far the greater number of portraits.)

In all fairness to the Philadelphia show, I don’t think it was Mr. Hoffman’s intention to deny that photography is art as well as documentation. On the contrary, what his show really does is to combine in a radical way these two alternate views of photography which remain separate in Worswick’s show. For Hoffman sees photography itself, all photography, as being an art form. I believe he sees the mass of attributed and unattributed images in his show as representing finally a single sensibility, a single vision, where China is concerned. As a consequence Hoffman attempts to show us through his arrangement of the photographs the sort of insight into their subject that we would normally look for only in the work of a single photographer. By the associations and juxtapositions of images in his show. he has attempted to imply a completely coherent view of China.

This is a very esoteric idea of photography—perhaps too esoteric for the general public that attends a museum show. I suspect that few of the people seeing the show in Philadelphia responded to the subtle, difficult structures Hoffman created for it. To them, it remained just a mass of images. At times the associations Hoffman wanted us to make do work. The first real sequence in the show, for example, concerns the second Opium War, which opened up China to the West, and ends with Beato’s views of the devastation of battle. Then on the adjacent wall the next run of pictures begins with an anonymous photograph of a Chinese being executed by slow strangulation while natty. mustachioed Englishmen look on and smile smugly at the camera. All the racial and political attitudes that made colonial wars possible. but that are not apparent from the scenes of the battles themselves, are apparent in this one, ironic little snapshot. Here is where we see the English enjoying the real privileges of their victory over the Chinese. Although the comment that this picture makes on the ones preceding it may not register consciously with the viewer. I think that on some level the very powerful connection implicit here does occur to anyone who sees the show.

Elsewhere, however, the train of thought of the show is more obscure. People come to an exhibition of photographs from China because it seems a quick, easy way to gain access to an otherwise difficult, demanding subject.

But the truth is that the mind gives out faster when trying to read photographs than read books. It requires the strictest concentration and a capacity to absorb enormous amounts of information in order to understand what photographs have to tell us about China, or to follow the complex line of argument that a curator like Hoffman can build into a show he has spent months preparing. We very quickly become numb and insensitive to the commentary the show offers us, no matter how thoughtful it is.

And there is another obstacle to understanding inherent in Hoffman’s approach, too. As must be apparent by now, it is my feeling that no one really knows yet what photographs like the ones in these shows have to tell us about China. Before we can know that, we must be clearer about how we regard photography itself. Both shows grapple with just this problem, and neither really solves it. Worswick’s is the more conservative and conventional, if schizophrenic, approach. It is also perhaps the more successful, at least for now. I am very sympathetic to Hoffman’s desire to find new and challenging ways to deal with photographs. to alter the way in which we look at them. But a risk his China show runs is that what the show is finally about is not China or photography or even the sensibility of photographers, but rather his own sensibility as a curator, an arbiter of images. This lets photography exhibitions in for enormous errors of egotism that will almost certainly not help us to read photography better. It makes good sense to organize the show of a single man’s work the way Hoffman has organized the Philadelphia show. But when a curator is dealing with photography by many different hands, his own tastes, predilections and values tend to become the only thing holding the show together. He overrides the work itself. That’s no good either.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.