From the 1980s onwards, the international academic community has striven to extensively recollect China’s historical photographs. This urge is mainly due to the dramatic loss of artefacts following a century of political and social turmoil, while the rest of photographs are scattered around the world as they belong to foreigners who went to or lived in China at that time but then went back home. Thus far there are only about three hundred Chinese collectors interested in photography; yet the economical value and the memory value of old photographs has attracted gradually more and more interest.
Tong Bingxue is one of them and not the least. Media professional and passionate about photography, Tong quickly dedicated his life to collecting and researching the rare photographs taken by Chinese between the mid-nineteenth century to the early years of the Republic of China (1912-1949). Today Tong has already been collecting for over ten years, published several books, and created an online museum that introduces part of his collection as well as fruitful information about early photography in China. On 28th May 2013, while I was undertaking fieldwork for my thesis in the National Library in Beijing, Tong happened to be in the same place to do his own personal research. He kindly agreed to meet me and to discuss about our common passion around a cup of coffee in the Library’s café.
Would you mind telling me more about your background, why did you start a collection of old photographs depicting China?
I started my collection in 2001. It is mainly because I studied journalism when I was at university and photography was one of my major, thus this triggered my interest in the subject. Almost ten years after graduation, in 2000, I bought a flat in which I wanted to hang some decorative artworks on the walls, though at that time I did not know what I should choose, because I did not want to have neither a duplicate nor a fake. So I went to the flea market – Panjiayuan in Beijing – and I bought my first old photograph with its original frame. The picture was taken in Shanxi by a local studio and I not only found it very beautiful but I was convinced it also conveyed a particular meaning. This enhanced my interest to buy more original photographs especially with their original frames. After two years of collecting, I started to do research on the photographs I bought, because I wanted to learn more about the photographer, the location where the photograph was taken, and so forth. I tried to find information in publications about the history of Chinese photography but while I was reading through I realized writers made a lot of mistakes. Moreover I noticed there was very few information about early photography in China, especially from the Qing period (1644-1911). The reason is because most of these books were published in the 1980s, so not that far after China Cultural Revolution (1966-76), consequently it was extremely hard to find originals photographs at that time. In the end since I was a student graduated from journalism who later started to collect photographs, I felt the need to do research about this medium.
Collecting and researching seems an approach quite atypical. In your opinion, what should be the role of a collector?
To me it is very important to do both because when you buy an old photograph you must know how many people have done similar work. I also search for others international collectors and art dealers who share similar interest in early Chinese photography. This phase of research lasted for a whole year, then I decided to focus my collection on early photographs taken by Chinese commercial studios from the late Qing to the early years of the Republican period. Such focus made me realize there were very few independent photographers in China during this early phase. Contrarily there are many records of independent American or British photographers for instance, because their countries’ economy were strong enough to support them. But it was not the case in China. So almost ninety percent of the early Chinese photographers were involved in commercial studios. Later during the Republican period, there were gradually more independent Chinese photographers, such as Lang Jingshan (1892-1995). So what I want to find out is how Chinese became interested, absorbed and developed this modern medium. We should not neglect how they developed and experimented photography in a particular way.
What would be then the local peculiarities of Chinese photography at that time?
Chinese commercial photographers created a different form of photography indeed. People tend to think that commercial photographic studios did not brought about innovation. Nevertheless I believe every photographer had his/her own creativity although their artefacts might have taken a different shape in China compared to Western countries. By that I mean consumers decided how a photograph should look like, it was not the photographer who set the scene, who chose the props, the angle and so forth. In early period, most of the persons who bought photographs were rich people or noble for this art was not affordable for commoners. This is why consumers’ taste impacted greatly on the developments of early Chinese photography. This is perhaps the main difference with Western countries. For instance in my collection I have a series of photograph collected by a local person from Fuzhou. He was not a photographer himself, but he went to several studios across Fuzhou and designed himself the scene in which he would be depicted. One year he would stand, another year he would sit on a chair, would look at the camera from the left or from the right, and so forth.
Early Chinese photographs have further peculiarities compared to international photography, for instance in general Westerners who practiced photography were often diplomats, military officer, or government officials so the photographs were dedicated to a specific foreign audience. Whereas Chinese photographers produced images that were consumed by local people. Therefore, by focusing on this type of commercial production, we can understand how Chinese appropriated photography and how they practiced it. This is very important because I have read a lot of publications, which includes authors such as John Thomson (1837-1921) or Felice Beato (1830-1903); but my task is to document those who have not been discussed yet. Besides I am Chinese, thus I have the advantage of being able to do this kind of research.
How complicated is it to build such a collection? Where do you find the photographs and the related information when available?
I think the process is again different from other countries mainly because of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s: at that time there was a political movement that encouraged to destroy all kind of old things. In a word, government ordered every single family to get rid of images from the past including old photographs. Before that, there were actually lots of photographs hanging in families’ living room. The Cultural Revolution destroyed a large number of original photographs, few survived today. As a consequence, it is quite a challenge to plunge oneself into collecting such old photographs and to show them.
However today we are living in the Internet era, hence over the last three years I decided to launch a website called “China Old Photo” (中国老照片网). This online project actually helped me significantly in my research. Needless to say that simultaneously I often go to the flea market, to international auction houses, buy through online auctions such as Ebay, get in touch with specialised art dealers, galleries, and so forth. Overall I would say Internet helped me remarkably. It is maybe because it is so complicated to build a collection of early photography of China that we have to document its history.
What do you plan for the future?
Thus far I have published several books. As you already know now, my primary focus is on early history of Chinese photography. I am notably particularly interested in family albums. My most important goal is to write about early photography in China and how Chinese practitioners approached, adopted and developed this imported medium.
Construct a museum is very difficult; maybe I would like to collaborate with other people or institutions to exhibit my collection for I believe communicating and diffusing a collection is very important nowadays. Publishing or putting them online are two of the methods of communication, but displaying the real photographs is also fundamental. I do hope in the future I will be able to donate my whole collection to a museum so that it can be exhibited permanently.
Photography Friday is a regular feature from Shanghaiist in association with Photography of China, Marine Cabos’s fantastic trilingual blog about photography and photographers in China.