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JOHN THOMSON: PHOTOGRAPHER AS HISTORIAN

JOHN THOMSON:  PHOTOGRAPHER AS HISTORIAN
Book; "Foochow and the River Min," 1873; sold for $180,000. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's, New YorK.
Being the first to photograph people, places and things around the world was not uncommon for British 19th century photographer John Thomson.

Thomson spent 10 years in the Far East setting up a portrait studio and capturing on film some of the first photographs of the natives around Singapore.

With Singapore as his base, Thomson traveled to Cambodia where he was the first to photograph the ancient city of Angkor and its jungle-clad temples.

On the way he stopped in Siam for six months and photographed the King of Siam. Working in primitive conditions, Thomson almost died from jungle fever.

Not much escaped his camera. He recorded the common taking of tea in Hong Kong. He photographed ordinary villagers as well as important rulers. He photographed landscapes, city streets, mandarins, machine guns, brides, and slave laborers.

Language barriers, local authorities, and a bulky wet plate camera with fragile glass plates and potentially explosive chemicals never stopped him.

Returning to Britain with his exotic shots, Thomson published them and lectured for a year. His camera and lectures brought the Far East to life for England. It was a world totally unlike anything they had ever known.

“We are now making history, and the sun picture supplies the means of passing down a record of what we are, and what we have achieved in this nineteenth century of our progress,” Thomson said.

Thomson returned to the Far East at the end of the year. This time he chose Hong Kong. He spent the next five years traveling all over China with his camera.

Sometimes Thomson traveled with other Westerners. For years his only companion was his dog Spot.

Although his camera could probably take up to 12 inch by 16 inch plates, most of the images Thomson shot were around 12 inches by 9 inches or smaller. His travel photographic archive is remarkable not only because it survived, but because of the range of subject matter and the exceptionally high quality of the images.

In 1870, one of the trips Thomson’s made was to Foochow, a port on the River Min. By 1850, Foochow had grown into one of the biggest ports in China, the world’s largest tea exporter. He created a huge pictorial record of the landscape, architecture and people of the area.

Using these photos, Thomson published by subscription a limited edition book 'Foochow and the River Min' in 1873. The 46 copies sold to European residents of Foochow, primarily tea-planters, missionaries, merchants and government officials in the region.

‘Foochow and the River Min’ is one of the scarcest of all 19th century books illustrated with photographs. Forty-six copies are believed to have been printed, but only six have been located at the time of this writing.

On April 22, Sotheby’s, New York, featured a copy of ‘Foochow and the River Min’ on the block in the Photographs auction. Expected to bring $50,000-$70,000, the book sold for $180,000.

Here are some current values for other important photographers sold in the auction.

Photographs

Hiroshi Sugimoto; ‘Guggenheim Museum, New York’; signed; 1994; 58 3/4 inches by 47 inches; $114,000.

Diane Arbus; ‘Man and Wife in Living Room of a Nudist Camp, NJ’; 1963; 14 5/8 inches by 14 1/2 inches; $120,000.

Edward Curtis; ‘The North American Indian,’ Portfolio 3; 1908; 34 of 36 large-format photogravures after photographs by Curtis; 15 3/4 inches by 10 1/2 inches approximate; $132,000.

Ansel Adams; 5 photos; ‘Surf Sequence, San Mateo County Coast, California’; each mounted and signed by the photographer in pencil with Carmel studio stamp; 1940; each 10 7/8 inches by 13 1/8 inches; $352,000. (To date, a record for this artist at auction.)

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