Art, Exhibitions and Installations, Getty Research Institute, Photographs, Film, and Video

Brush and Shutter: When Chinese Painters Became Photographers

Plate from <em>Album of Bohea</em> or <em>Wu-e Photographic Views</em>, 1860s–70s, Tung Hing (Chinese, active 1860s–80s), albumen silver prints. The Getty Research Institute, 2003.R.23.39

Plate from Album of Bohea or Wu-e Photographic Views, 1860s–70s, Tung Hing (Chinese, active 1860s–80s), albumen silver prints. The Getty Research Institute, 2003.R.23.39

The new exhibition Brush & Shutter: Early Photography in China uses photographs, along with a few paintings and other artistic media, to tell a largely unknown story about China.

In the second half of the 19th century, when China was politically weak, several enterprising Chinese artists and reformers embraced the new technology of photography that arrived with the foreign “barbarians.” Innovative artists who were painting—with brushes—portraits or landscapes for export began using camera shutters to capture images. In so doing, they became photographers.

<em>Portrait of Li Hongzhang in Tianjin</em>, 1878, Liang Shitai (also known as See Tay) (Chinese, active in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tianjin, 1870s–1880s), albumen silver print. The Getty Research Institute, 2006.R.1.4

Portrait of Li Hongzhang in Tianjin, 1878, Liang Shitai (also known as See Tay) (Chinese, active in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tianjin, 1870s–1880s), albumen silver print. The Getty Research Institute, 2006.R.1.4


For the first time, this exhibition shines a light on their work and juxtaposes some of their compelling photographs with those taken by foreigners, such as Thomas Childs, William Saunders, Milton Miller, and Felice Beato, whose work is featured in the galleries below Brush & Shutter, in the Getty Center’s West Pavilion.

Some Chinese shutter experts, such as the Tung Hing studio, featured views of dramatic rock faces and river scenes in Fujian province, artistic themes that for centuries have been the hallmark of Chinese “mountain-water” ink paintings, but here these views are encased in a photographic album. Other Chinese photographers, such as Liang Shitai, specialized in portraits of high-ranking officials, but these images were then embellished with either hand-brushed Chinese characters or hand-stamped name chops.

Several Chinese photographers, Lai Afong among them, assembled multiple-image panoramas of Chinese cities, some of which were just being “opened up” to foreign commerce and, thus, they began to show the architectural footprints of the European traders: factories, churches, mansions, and offices.

<em>General View of Wuzhou</em>, 1860s, Lai Afong (Chinese, 1839–1890), albumen silver print. The Getty Research Institute, 2003.R.22.37

General View of Wuzhou, 1860s, Lai Afong (Chinese, 1839–1890), albumen silver print. The Getty Research Institute, 2003.R.22.37

The surprising story that Brush & Shutter tells, in one gorgeous gallery and in one captivating catalogue, is a thrilling one that resonates with China’s powerful rise on the world stage today. Chinese entrepreneurs are again adapting foreign technologies, from high-speed trains to iPads. Chinese artists are again demonstrating distinctive visions of contemporary life, as can be seen in the exhibit Photography from the New China.

For all the tantalizing images that Brush & Shutter contains, however, it only begins to tell a story—one whose fuller dimensions will only be understood after more work by early Chinese photographers comes to light. This exhibition, then, is a first step on a longer journey.

For those who want to take further steps (without venturing to China), you may enjoy the catalogue, co-edited with my fellow curator Frances Terpak, in which several scholars probe even more deeply into this rich vein of photographic material.

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One Comment

  1. Peter h Dragonas MD
    Posted February 24, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Having seen The Forbidden City Collection in Salem, MA, PEM & the Met in NYC, I am anxious to visit with the next medium of expression in China. Congratulations on the occasion of this event. PHD.MD. Boston, MA

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.


      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”

      02/11/16

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