SALEM — The first thing a museum-goer sees in “Power and Perspective: Early Photography in China” isn’t a photograph but a camera, c. 1860. It rests on a tripod, with plate holder and dipping tank alongside. More specifically, it’s a wet-plate camera, which means it’s quite large. Made of walnut and brass and glass, this mighty object is at once sculptural and slightly admonitory.
Its size makes one marvel at the commitment of early photographers to their work, having had to lug around something so cumbersome. That size makes one marvel in a different way at the commitment of those on the other side of the camera. The first word in the show’s title prods a visitor to wonder at the response of subjects facing such an intimidating piece of equipment. A camera can serve multiple purposes, domination no less than documentation.
“Power and Perspective” runs through April 2 at the Peabody Essex Museum. The show has been curated by PEM’s Karina H. Corrigan and Stephanie H. Tung.
That first word in the title assumes many aspects in the exhibition: military power, economic power, technological power, social power, imperial power (the empires in question being primarily European, though China was itself an empire). So much of photography’s power (that word again) has to do with how it encourages a viewer to neglect what exists outside the frame. The great virtue of the show’s approach is to make us alert to that neglect and appreciate in new ways the richness and interest of what’s outside the frame.
A drawback to that approach is a tendency to over rely on it. The Scottish photographer John Thomson’s “selective vision of a pristine and unpopulated land,” a wall text suggests, “catered to Western conceptions 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 to the enduring influence of Claude Lorrain on the European visual imagination, or even more, than to any implicit promotion of Lebensraum.
The show’s emphases are much more cultural and historical than artistic, but there is artistic power to be found here, too, of course. Among the more than 130 photographs, roughly half of which have never been exhibited before, there are many striking images.
Thomson’s “The Island Pagoda,” from his magisterial 1873 photographic album, “Foochow and the River Min,” verges on dreamscape. It could be a flash-forward to Surrealism. Pagoda and tree seem conjoined. Henri Bergson said humor consisted of the encrustation of the mechanical on the organic. What we see here might be described as the encrustation of the organic on the architectural. More than that, the way the river has eroded the island means that pagoda and tree seem to rise up from the water. Further adding to the sense of disorientation is their being mirrored in the water, its glassiness (more disorientation) the result of the long exposure time camera technology then required.
A very different sort of dream is evident in Felice Beato’s “Head Quarter staff, Pehtang Fort. Augt. 1st 1860.” It’s a dream of imperial domination. The solidity of the cannon in the foreground contrasts with the blurring of the Union Jack atop the fort. The blurring, another product of a long exposure time, makes the flag appear slightly sinister. Not that that effect was intended.
The second word in the show’s title, “perspective,” has an obvious optical relevance to photography. But here the meaning is more about viewpoint, or context. It’s safe to assume that Beato didn’t intend anything sinister with his rendering of the Union Jack because his intended audience, British rather than Chinese, would have in no way countenanced such an interpretation. Their perspective assumed a very different context for that image: triumphalism and reassurance rather than expansionism and threat.
One of the most effective ways that the show works to provide context is simple yet inspired. Along with photographs, “Power and Perspective” includes contemporaneous paintings and prints. There are also other, less conventional items, such as an incense burner in the shape of a paddle steamer, hairpins, a paint box with ink sticks, and a musket ball. That musket ball killed Frederick Townsend Ward, a son of Salem who became a general in the Chinese imperial army. Hanging nearby is Ward’s banner. It bears the Chinese character “Hua,” chosen by the general because it sounds like “Ward.”
Two sections of the exhibition might have an additional appeal for viewers. PEM’s most popular attraction is the Yin Yu Tang House. “Power and Perspective” includes several photographs from the archive of the Huang family, which owned the house. These photographs serve a larger purpose as a useful reminder that it wasn’t just foreigners who had cameras. As in the West, photography became increasingly popular within Chinese society.
More than just commerce and military action brought Westerners to China. Especially in the final decades of the 19th century, tourists began to appear. Among them were Isabella Stewart Gardner and her husband. They visited in 1883. The show includes one of Gardner’s travel albums, consisting of photographs of China she purchased to go in there with her writing and other items.
“Power and Perspective” concludes with a chronological leap. The final section comprises photographs from contemporary Chinese photographers. Shi Yangkun, for example, offers 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 are printed as postcards and displayed so that both sides are visible. This allows us to see that when he mailed them, Shi addressed each one to a different PEM staffer. It’s a charming grace note.
A wall text explains that “PEM curators worked with emerging photographers from underrepresented groups in China to interrogate the historic photographs in this exhibition.” The term “underrepresented groups” seen in such proximity to “interrogate” is a reminder, however inadvertent, that that verb operates quite differently in an intellectual context from how it does in a juridical one.
It’s a curious thing that the very matters “Power and Perspective” seeks to illuminate as regards the treatment of China by the West in the 19th century — imperialism, exploitation, cultural domination — are as relevant to China today, though now it’s not the West that’s practicing them.
This last gallery does have a section on “Muslim Schoolgirls,” with three photographs by Jiao Dongzi. So there is that concession to minority status. But what groups are more “underrepresented” in China than Tibetans and Uyghurs? One might argue that their plight and related issues aren’t the concern of a show subtitled “Early Photography in China.” But once such a show adds contemporary to its brief that alters the intellectual equation — and maybe the moral one, too.
The criticism of actions in the past is a good and necessary thing. Ex post facto activism has its place. It can even be consequential beyond the scholarly realm, insofar as it helps us better understand comparable actions in the present. But it’s not as consequential as the criticism of those present-day actions. That wet-plate behemoth at the show’s beginning has a smaller, far more powerful counterpart today: a surveillance camera.
POWER AND PERSPECTIVE: Early Photography in China
At Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, through April 2.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.