What East Asia Looked Like 150 Years Ago

19th-century Scottish photographer and travel writer john thomson

John Thomson is a legendary 19th-century Scottish photographer and travel writer.

He was one of the first photographers to travel to the Far East.

A Manchu lady after having her face painted, Beijing, 1871–72. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)
Old Cantonese woman 1968. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

Credited for laying the foundations of what is now known as photojournalism, Thomson documented the people, landscapes and artifacts of Eastern cultures for a decade beginning in April 1862 when he left Edinburgh for Singapore.

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King Mongkut, the fourth monarch of Siam. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

Thomson spent the next 10 years traveling taking photographs in Asian countries, including Siam (now Thailand), Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and different locations in China.

Thomson with two Manchu soldiers, Fujian Province, Xiamen, 1871. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

The images he collected from his journeys are considered among the most extensive records of any region taken in the 19th century.

Buddhist priests at Yongquan Monastery, Fujian Province, Fuzhou, Drum Mountain, 1870–71. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

At that time, taking photographs was done using a process called the “wet collodion” in which an exposure was made onto a glass negative.

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Chinese schoolboy. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)
Chinese Female Coiffure, 1869. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

Processing the images was tedious and must be done in complete darkness. Thomson would carry a variety of equipment during his travels, including a portable darkroom tent, glass negatives, and bottles of highly flammable chemicals fitted inside a large number of crates.

Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

Known for depth and aesthetic quality, Thomson’s photos have earned him the recognition of being one of the most important travel photographers in history.

A Buddhist temple in China. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)
Vietnam. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)
A busy street in Singapore. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)
Penang, Malaysia. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)
Hong Kong Harbor Guangzhou, Guangdong 1869-71. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)
Island Pagoda, about 1871, from the album, Foochow and the River Min. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

Aside from his photography skills, what differentiated him further from the many photographers in Asia at the time is that Thomson was neither a government official nor a missionary.

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Siamese boatman, Siam. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

As a professional photographer, who was genuinely fascinated by Asia and its people, Thomson was more attuned to his subjects’ lives and environment.

A Manchu Bride. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

He captured daily lives of people from all walks of life — ministers, high officials, wealthy traders, street vendors, brides, boat women, monks, soldiers and royals in the region. 

A Boy from Siam. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)
Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)
An Amoy couple, Fujian Province, Xiamen, 1870–71. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)
Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

He was also the first photographer who documented the Angkor Wat, a temple complex in Cambodia known as the largest religious monument in the world.

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

Thomson’s fascinating work is currently being featured in a London exhibit for the first time ever, reports MailOnline

Bangkok, Siam. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)
Landscape of houses built with tile roofs in China. Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

His collection of over 600 glass plates documenting Asian landscapes, architecture, people and customs in the 19th century is housed in the Wellcome Library, London and will be shown from April 13 to June 23 at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS, University of London.

Featured Image via Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

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