We can’t know now whether or not Italian-British photographer Felice Beato had a sense of how important the photographs he took of Beijing would be for preserving the history of China. He was the first photographer to capture images of the seat of China’s power at a moment of monumental and irreversible change.
The Summer Palace had existed for around 700 years and reflected the rise of Chinese culture, and its many riches. But much of it wouldn’t survive the assault launched by Anglo-French troops from October 6, 1860, and the burning and pillaging that followed. What remains now are only memories, and rare photographs such as those taken by Beato, and which on display as part of the Masterpieces of Early Chinese Photography exhibition in New York.
More than 30 photographs taken by Beato and his contemporaries will be on display until March 20 and come from the private collection of Stephan Loewentheil, founder of the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop. The exhibition is being presented as part of Asia Week New York.
According to a statement from the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop, the exhibition “presents one of the most dramatic examples of the power of early photography to transcend and survive politics, time, language, and culture.”
“The development of photography allowed the preservation of views of traditional China as it had existed for thousands of years,” it said. “China was soon to be utterly transformed by the political, economic, and cultural changes of the 20th century.”
“These upheavals contributed to making photographs of 19th century China among the rarest in the field. As a result, late Qing dynasty photography has remained largely unstudied and unavailable in China and throughout the world. Through exhibitions such as this, Stephan Loewentheil shares with the public selections from his collection, which is the largest and finest collection of late Qing dynasty photography in private hands.”
Masterpieces of Early Chinese Photography, presented by the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop, will be held at PRPH Books, 26 East 64th Street, 3rd floor, in New York City. The show will run as part of Asia Week New York, March 7-20, 11am-6pm (weekend till 5). Admission free.