Beyond the addition of rugs and articles of clothing, the Textile Museum’s exhibit “China: Through the Lens of John Thomson” calls to mind an exhibit last year at the National Gallery of Art—“Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma.”
Both exhibits spotlighted the work of a photographer from the United Kingdom who carried bulky equipment deep into Asia for the purpose of documenting the culture. (For Tripe, it was India and Burma between 1852 and 1860; for Thomson, it was China between 1868 and 1872.)
Both photographers made a wide range of landscape images. Some of Thomson’s have appeal, such as the eerie, ruined façade of a Christian church in Macau, or a junk sailing on still water. But on the whole,
Tripe’s landscape work is more skillful, and his prints are marred far less frequently by specks, cracks and imperfections than Thomson’s is. But Tripe didn’t make portraits—and that’s where Thomson soared as an artist.
Thomson’s wide travels through far-flung regions of China—lugging crates for negatives that had to be lifted by several men—brought him into contact with everyone from religious figures to government officials and ordinary people, and he seemingly made images of them all.
One woman in Fujian, photographed in a sideways portrait, is shown in simple black clothing yet carefully adorned hair and a huge hoop earring, appearing decidedly at peace with herself. An image of a Cantonese schoolboy is notable for the subject’s piercing eyes, while a portrait of a Guangdong boatwoman in a breezy head scarf exudes an unexpectedly modern look.
Thomson was equally skilled at photographing the young and the old, whether it’s an elderly woman in stylish clothing and an elaborate hairstyle, or the much younger, and aptly titled, “Cantonese beauty” shooting a sideways glance and just the hint of a smile.
It’s hard to ignore Thomson’s western, “imperial” gaze; his interactions with his sitters are clearly those of an outsider. Still, his skill as a portraitist makes his images fit in perfectly with the exhibit’s location. He’s a careful observer not only of the individual but also the fashions they sport, whether it’s the ministry of foreign affairs official smoking a meter-long pipe or the Mandarin seated in regal attire by an open window. Paired with a selection of well-preserved and colorful silk jackets, Thomson’s old and battered images of style and fashion come to life.
Through Feb. 14 at the Textile Museum, 701 21st St., NW, Washington, D.C. Mon, Wed, Thu, Fri 11:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Sat 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun 1–5 p.m.