New York based rare book dealer and collector Stephan Loewentheil, owner of the largest known collection of Chinese photography in private hands, currently has 120 early Chinese photographs on exhibition at the Tsinghua University Art Museum in Beijing.
The exhibition covers the 1850s, when the first Western photographers arrived in China, through the 1880s, and offers an exceedingly rare glimpse into the daily lives and landscapes of a country previously known to the West only through paintings and travelouges. It includes examples of early photographic technology, such as albumen prints and the "wet plate" process.
"People wanted to bring back great images that they could sell in other places," said Loewentheil in an interview with CNN. "People who traveled there, everyone from diplomats and businessmen to missionaries, all wanted to bring home a record of this beautiful culture of China that was so unique."
In addition to photographs taken by visiting Westerners, Loewentheil's collection and exhibition contain numerous examples of photographs taken by early Chinese photographers who acquired their equipment from departing Westerners or designed their own cameras after observing Western cameras in action.
"Photography is the greatest preserver of history," Loewentheil said, in the same interview. "For many years, the written word was the way that history was transmitted. But the earliest photography preserves culture in China, and elsewhere, as it had been for many hundreds of years because it was simultaneous with the technological revolutions that were to change everything."
Lowentheil's eventual goal is to house his collection, with over 15,000 photographs, in China. In the meantime, the exhibition in on display
at Tsinghua University Art Museum in Beijing through the end of March.
Image from Tsinghua University Art Museum