While taking a friend around the Library of Birmingham I took the opportunity to stop and visit the Triple Exposure digital exhibition. I sat down in the Book Browse area at the back of the library and watched the images drift across the wall above. A theatre, a merchant’s house, tea houses, processions, Chinese New Year celebrations. Amongst the first series of photographs was one in particular which caught my eye. Treasury Street, Canton in 1860.
This photograph was taken by Felice Beato, an Anglo-Italian photographer travelling with the British Army during the Second Opium War in China. He was one of the first photographers to capture images of China.
I had seen the original print in our collections several times before and it was a photograph I very much liked. The Digital Gallery was a new way to view it, showing not only the entire image but also then selecting and enlarging a detail from it so that it became the sole focus of attention.
Initially I saw what I had always seen, a narrow street lined with shops and signage and apparently designed for commerce. Yet there is no immediate evidence of the bustle you might have expected – at first glance it appears empty. If you look closely you can make out a couple of shadowy figures in the doorways on either side. Not quite Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon. The detail from this image however, reveals something I had not really noticed before. At the heart of the photograph is a blurred area seemingly full of dark cloud. It took me a moment to realise that this is what had always seemed to me to be missing from a street full of shops. People.During his eight-month trek accompanying the British Army, Beato travelled with a horse-drawn carriage containing a tent for use as a darkroom and glass plates to create his negatives.
The wet-plate collodion process preferred by him gave pictures with a high degree of detail but required an exposure time of 10 to 15 seconds to capture and fix a scene. The slightest movement could blur the image produced, while the everyday traffic of a city’s inhabitants rendered them almost invisible.
A reminder, then, that photography, the ‘mirror to life’, in those days captured only the stillness of the immobile. People, unless posed, frequently appeared merely as ghosts.
Treasury Street, Canton, is one of a series of photographs Beato made documenting monuments and architectural views of the cities of Peking (now Beijing) and Canton (now Guangzhou), and showing scenes of local life in China never before seen in the West.
This image, like many others taken by him, began life as a fragile glass plate, coated with light sensitive silver salts. It was transported by him with care in difficult circumstances to fix in stillness a moment from 1860s Canton. It travelled. It came to Birmingham. Two years ago it returned to Guangzhou from its twin city halfway across the world, to be shown in an exhibition at the place it was made. A long way for a moment in time to travel.
The Triple Exposure Digital Exhibition includes other images by Beato, as well as hand-coloured photographic postcards from the early 20th-century, and contemporary images of Chinese New Year celebrations in the Shanxi Province made by Zhang Xiao.
The originals are available to view by appointment in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research. A recent addition to Zhang Xiao’s collection at the Library of Birmingham includes a copy of his book, Shanxi, published by Little Big Man in 2013.
Ela Myszek, Archives Senior Assistant, Photography Projects