When photography was invented in the mid-19th century, France became the nation that could boast providing the landscape captured in the first known photograph — but it didn’t take too long for the medium to make its way around the world. Though photography would capture changing history, or cause history to change, in many places, the timing of its arrival in China proved particularly interesting from a historical perspective.
Travelers from the West brought the technology to Asia in the 1840s, according to the Getty Research Institute’s in-depth study of the history of photography in China, and it quickly became popular. At that time, China was ruled by the Qing (or Manchu) Dynasty, the imperial dynasty that had governed the vast nation since the 17th century. Photography’s arrival in China in the 19th century occurred just at the right moment to capture a way of life that would largely disappear when the Qing Dynasty fell from power in the early 20th century. Even before the coming of revolution around the end of 1911 and the subsequent abdication of the emperor, China was — like the rest of the world in the century of industrialization, but in its own special way — beginning to modernize and shed its old ways of life.
However, thanks to the coming of photography, what that way of life looked like was preserved.
Rare photographic images of the late Qing period, including the ones seen here, are on display in New York City through Mar. 20, as part of Asia Week New York. The exhibition, Masterpieces of Early Chinese Photography, presented by the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop, showcases photographs from the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection, which the shop says is the largest private collection of historical photos of China.