When the Camera Has Imperial Power – The Boston Globe | Ad On Picture

Power and Perspective runs at the Peabody Essex Museum until April 2nd. The show was curated by Karina H. Corrigan and Stephanie H. Tung of PEM.

The first word in the title takes on many aspects in the exhibition: military power, economic power, technological power, social power, imperial power (the empires in question are mainly European, although China itself was an empire). So much of the power of photography (that word again) has to do with how it encourages a viewer to neglect what exists outside of the frame. The great virtue of the show’s approach is to make us aware of this neglect and to appreciate in new ways the richness and interest of what lies outside the frame.

A downside to this approach is the tendency to over-rely on it. Scottish photographer John Thomson’s “selective vision of a pristine and unsettled land,” according to a wall text, “corresponded to the Western conception of China as expansive and ripe for settlement.” The West was certainly and shamefully eager to exploit China, but surely Thomson’s pastoralism owed as much, if not more, to the enduring influence of Claude Lorrain on European visual arts than to any implicit promotion of habitat.

The focus of the show is much more cultural-historical than artistic, but of course there is artistic power here too. Among the more than 130 photographs, about half of which have never been exhibited, there are many striking images.

John Thomson, “The Island Pagoda”, 1873 c) Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken SawyerPeabody Essex Museum

Thomson’s The Island Pagoda, from his masterful 1873 photo album Foochow and the River Min, borders on a dreamscape. It could be a flash forward to surrealism. Pagoda and tree seem connected. Henri Bergson said that humor consists in the encrustation of the mechanical on the organic. What we see here could be described as the incrustation of the organic on the architectural. Additionally, the way the river has eroded the island means that the pagoda and tree appear to be rising out of the water. The sense of disorientation is reinforced by their reflection in the water, whose glassiness (more disorientation) is the result of the long exposure times required by camera technology at the time.

A very different kind of dream is shown in Felice Beato’s “Head Quarter staff, Pehtang Fort. Aug. 1, 1860.” It is a dream of imperial rule. The solidity of the cannon in the foreground contrasts with the blurred Union Jack on the fort. The blur, another product of a long exposure, makes the flag look slightly sinister. Not that this effect was intended.

Felice Beato, “Headquarters Staff, Pehtang Fort. Aug. 1st 1860.”Peabody Essex Museum

The second word in the exhibition’s title, “perspective,” has obvious visual relevance to photography. But this is more about point of view or context. It is safe to assume that Beato meant no harm with his portrayal of the Union Jack, as his intended audience, more British than Chinese, would have been in no way sanctioned by such an interpretation. Her perspective took on a very different context for this image: triumphalism and reassurance rather than expansionism and menace.

One of the most effective ways the show works to provide context is simple yet inspirational. In addition to photographs, “Power and Perspective” includes contemporary paintings and prints. There are also other, less conventional items, such as an incense burner shaped like a paddle steamer, hairpins, a paint box with inksticks, and a musket ball. This musket ball killed Frederick Townsend Ward, a son of Salem who became a general in the Imperial Chinese Army. Ward’s banner hangs nearby. It bears the Chinese character “Hua”, chosen by the General because it sounds like “Ward”.

Sunqua, “View of the Foreign Settlement in Guangzhou”, 1855–60Peabody Essex Museum

Two sections of the exhibition could have an additional attraction for the viewer. PEM’s most popular attraction is the Yin Yu Tang House. “Power and Perspective” contains several photographs from the archive of the Huang family who owned the house. These photos serve a greater purpose as a useful reminder that it wasn’t just foreigners who had cameras. As in the West, photography became increasingly popular in Chinese society.

It wasn’t just trade and military action that brought Westerners to China. Tourists began to appear, especially in the last decades of the 19th century. Among them were Isabella Stewart Gardner and her husband. They visited in 1883. The exhibit includes one of Gardner’s travel albums, consisting of photographs of China that she bought to go in with her writings and other items.

William Saunders, “View of Shanxi Road, Shanghai, 1860s-1880s”Peabody Essex Museum

“Power and Perspective” closes with a leap in time. The final section includes photographs by contemporary Chinese photographers. Shi Yangkun, for example, features 40 views from earlier this year of a replica of the Old Summer Palace destroyed by the British and French in 1860 (an event addressed earlier in the show). The images will be printed as postcards and displayed so that both sides are visible. This allows us to see that when Shi sent them, he addressed each one to a different PEM employee. It’s an enchanting grace note.

A wall text explains that “PEM curators have collaborated with emerging photographers from underrepresented groups in China to question the historical photographs in this exhibition.” The term “underrepresented groups” seen in such close proximity to “interrogate” reminds, albeit unintentionally, that this verb works quite differently in an intellectual context than in a legal one.

It is curious that the very issues that “Power and Perspective” seeks to illuminate in relation to the West’s treatment of China in the 19th century – imperialism, exploitation, cultural domination – are just as relevant to China today, although not now more so is West practicing them.

This last gallery has a section on “Muslim Schoolgirls” with three photographs by Jiao Dongzi. So there is this concession to minority status. But which groups are more “underrepresented” in China than Tibetans and Uyghurs? One could argue that their plight and related issues are not the subject of an exhibition subtitled Early Photography in China. But once such a show adds contemporary to its brief, the intellectual equation changes—and perhaps the moral one, too.

Criticism of past actions is a good and necessary thing. Ex post facto activism has its place. It can even have implications beyond the realm of science, in that it helps us better understand comparable actions in the present. But it is not as consequential as the criticism of today’s actions. The wet-plate behemoth at the start of the show has a smaller, far more powerful counterpart today: a surveillance camera.

Felice Beato, “Treasury Street, Canton,” April 1860Peabody Essex Museum

POWER AND PERSPECTIVE: Early Photography in China

At the Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem until April 2nd.

978-745-9500, www.pem.org

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.

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