“The Face of China”

The photography show which was seen last spring at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the one which opened during the summer at Asia House here in New York have a lot in common. In fact, they seem in some ways to be a single show which is being put on in installments. In the first place, the two shows deal with the same subject, 19th-century China. They are both now off touring other parts of the country. And they were curated by two men—Michael Hoffman in Philadelphia and Clark Worswick at Asia House—who have collaborated in the past. It is therefore not surprising that there are similarities between the shows. Out of the roughly 100 pictures published in each show’s catalogue, a dozen or more are the same. The similarity between the shows that is ultimately most striking, however, is a certain ambivalence each has toward photography itself. It is the way in which each is undecided about just what its photographs represent.

Even the texts for the catalogues of the two shows at times give us the feeling that they are a single, and rather single-minded, essay. One thing they share, for instance, is a bit of uneasiness over the photographers who took the pictures in these shows. Notice how Nigel Cameron, in the essay accompanying the Philadelphia show, describes the consequences of the second Opium War:

Thereafter, flocks of eager traders, earnest missionaries of a bewildering number of sects (which greatly confused the Chinese on the subject of Christianity), adventurers of every kind, and, of course, the ardent and intrepid photographers all rushed to China.

The implication is that everyone except the photographer was a scoundrel or an opportunist. This leaves us wondering whether, considering the occasion for his essay, Mr.Cameron isn’t just trying to be nice to photographers, who were in truth scoundrels and opportunists as well. The problem is that the Victorians who went out to colonize Asia are rather out of favor today. In fact, as the militancy of Third-World liberation movements has increased, the people who carried the White Man’s Burden in the Far East have become the villains of history. In the essay done for the catalogue of the Asia Society show, Jonathan Spence confronts this problem somewhat more directly when he reminds us that

the Chinese posing here, from whichever walk of life, confront a lens made possible only by act of war: and the Westerners strolling Chinese streets did so as conquerors, however unwittingly, not as tourists or explorers in the general sense.

This being the current estate of all 19th-century Imperialists, photographers included, it is perhaps understandable that both these shows adopt to some extent the attitude that a photograph is just a fact. If a photograph is a fact, then we don’t have to be too concerned about the values of the man who took it. It isn’t tainted or dated by his obsolete social philosophy. (One need only read something these photographers wrote, such as John Thomson’s text for his 1877 Illustrations of China, to see that their social values do indeed make us uncomfortable today.) The notion that a photograph is a fact is apparent in Spence’s remark above that the Chinese were made to “confront” not a photographer, but a “lens.” Whenever somebody wants to take the position that a photograph is a neutral observation, he refers to the equipment, which has no human foibles, instead of to the photographer. Clark Worswick does the same thing when he says, in a statement which appears on a wall plaque at the beginning of his exhibition. that we can “rely on the camera to help separate myth from fact.”

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.