E-Photo
Issue #195  12/4/2012
 
Photo Books: Bennett's China Survey, Part II; And O'Sullivan's Majestic West

By Matt Damsker

HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY IN CHINA:

WESTERN PHOTOGRAPHERS 1861-1879.

By Terry Bennett. Bernard Quaritch Ltd., London. Hardbound; 420 pgs.; ISBN No. 978-0-9563012-1-5; email: rarebooks@quaritch.com ; http://www.quaritch.com .

Terry Bennett's rigorous scholarship and dedication to Asia's photography have already resulted in a landmark history of Chinese photography from 1842 to 1860 (along with important studies of Japan's and Korea's contributions to the medium), and this second China volume chronicles the important era from 1861 to 1879. It's the most extensive general survey of its kind, with more than 80 photographers, from well-known professionals to little-known amateurs, under discussion, and a fair amount of clarified attribution of hitherto unknown or misidentified work.

Bennett's opus picks up in the era just following the Second Opium War, when Milton Miller and Charles Weed are the most prominent commercial photographers in China, and when the civil war known as the Taiping Rebellion was nearing its climax. By 1864, it had finally ended, at a cost of many millions of lives, after Miller and Weed returned to America, and new generations of photographers were eager to succeed them. Miller's former associate, S.W. Halsey, quickly opened a Hong Kong studio, and Bennett notes that "Halsey would have had the experience and substantial stock to enable him to dominate the studio scene…His only serious competitors were probably the Chinese studios of John Hing-Qua and Pun Lun."

But keen competition from other foreign and domestic photographers was an outgrowth of peace and prosperity, and thus China was flooded with photographic output of every type and quality. Portraiture, landscape, monumental, farm and urban studies flourished, largely through the lenses of Western opportunists, with William Floyd attaining long-standing success in Hong Kong, and a great deal of technically superior work by David Griffith and his Chinese colleague Lai Afong. In Peking (now Beijing), Thomas Child and Dr. John Dudgeon were among the most successful, while William Saunders and Henry Cammidge dominated in Shanghai.

Bennett details their work thoroughly, with generous examples of Dudgeon's fine, sweeping landscapes and complex views of village life. Bennett also draws our attention to the picaresque St Julian Edwards, who not only made pictures but a fair amount of money in all manner of illegal activity, along with lesser known but important Russian artists such as Lev Stepanovich Igorev, who may well have produced many wonderful images of Chinese notables, water carriers, and beggars, though Bennett is careful to tell us that more research is needed to confirm that.

If anyone can do so, of course, it's Bennett, and this volume stands tall in its deep mixture of known history, informed speculation and tireless research. With chapters delving richly into the studio work of Hong Kong, Peking, the various Treaty Ports and the many roving photographers as well, Bennett sifts through the accomplishments of the British, French and other Westerners who defined the most accomplished photography of China's post-war era, with extensive bibliographies and indexing. But he is hardly through: publisher Quaritch informs us that he is at work on a definitive survey of Chinese photographers from 1860 through the late Qing era. Like this and all of Bennett's books, it should be well worth the time he takes.

TIMOTHY H. O'SULLIVAN: THE KING SURVEY PHOTOGRAPHS.

By Keith F. Davis and Jane L. Aspinwall. Hall Family Foundation in association with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO. Published to accompany the recent exhibition of the same name at the Art Institute of Chicago, and at the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven, CT; 252 pages, more than 200 color plates; ISBN No. 978-0-300-17984-2; information: http://www.hallfamilyfoundation.org , or http://www.nelson-atkins.org , or http://www.yalebooks.com/art .

The remarkable series of Western landscape photographs made by Timothy H. O'Sullivan as part of the U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, also known as the King Survey, is one of the foundational achievements of American photography, a work of vision and discovery to rival what might have been had Lewis & Clark left us with such images in their pre-photography era of the early 1800s. Created between 1867 and 1872, when Clarence King and his party studied the vastness from the border of California to the edge of the Great Plains (some one hundred by eight hundred miles in size), O'Sullivan's masterful images encompassed the path of the soon-to-be completed transcontinental railroad and was thus a study of immense economic as well as aesthetic import.

As co-author of this handsome catalogue, Keith F. Davis notes: "Surprisingly, perhaps, before the Civil War, the camera was used only sporadically in the West, and with distinctly modest success." The cost and labor-intensive nature of photography in its early days are of course major reasons for this, which makes O'Sullivan's expansive efforts as a member of the King party all that much more treasured. Davis details how O'Sullivan began as a studio assistant to none other than Matthew Brady in New York, and became one of Brady's team of Civil War photographers. With such a pedigree, O'Sullivan proved himself "one of the best and most prolific photographers of the Civil War," Davis writes, adding importantly that he "had no dominant compositional strategy or formula that was reflexively applied. Some images are elegantly minimal; others are complexly structured, with a variety of formal elements arranged across the picture plane or layered in space."

But if O'Sullivan had no essential "style," in the modernist sense of individual inflection, he was no less a master along the spectrum of photographic strategies. Thus, his images of the King Survey build upon the rich historic legacy of his Civil War photos, in which he viewed everything from the tragic details of the dead at Gettsyburg to the pastoral woods and battlefields of the war's enactment. Opening his lenses to the great spaces of the West, O'Sullivan began with the endless vistas of Nevada's scrub desert and Alkali Lake, a small oasis from which a distant butte sits mirage-like in the enormously distant horizon. In close-ups of rock pyramids and domes elsewhere in Nevada, he captures primeval atmosphere, and when he ventures a long shot of a covered wagon in the sand dunes, we sense the scale of human endeavor in the wilderness.

O'Sullivan also made indelible images of frontier industry, especially the silver and gold mines of Virginia City, NV, viewed as great encampments from a distance, as well as from within. The image of a cave-in's aftermath at the Gould & Curry Mine is a study in geometries of rubble that brings us intimately close to the life-and-death polarities of that rugged work. Then there are the grand vistas and formations of Idaho, such as Shoshone Falls, its rising mist seemingly moistening the majestic photo, or the snow-veined peaks and evergreens of Utah, its striated rock giants, the stark Badlands of Wyoming, and the snaking canyons of Colorado.

Indeed, Davis tells us that it was none other than John Szarkowski who increased O'Sullivan's renown as a crucial American photographer during Szarkowski's era as curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, beginning in 1962. Szarkowski wrote of the half-dozen government survey photographers of the 1860s and '70s that "O'Sullivan was perhaps the one with the purest, the most consistent, and the most inventive vision." This superb catalogue shows us how and why.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005.

He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)