gael newton - selected articles, essays and papers

brief bio     |   essays and papers     |     Gael's Blog     |     photo-web


Originally published in ‘National Surveys: Southeast Asia’ in Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Editor John Hannavy, Routledge 2008

South-East Asia 19th Century Photography:

Thailand, Burma, and IndoChina (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos)


In his memoirs French trade negotiator Jules Itier (1802-1877) describes making two daguerreotypes at the French military fort at Tourane (Da Nang), South Vietnam, in 1845 while on a trade mission to China. Activity by other daguerreotypists in Burma or Indochina is as yet unknown. The response to photography in Thailand (Siam) was however, precocious due to the enthusiasm for the medium in the Royal Court.

In Bangkok in July 1845 French Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix (1841–1862) received an apparatus he had ordered from France and he and his confreres became adept enough to take Royal portraits and train others. With no tradition of Royal portraiture in the late 1840s and 1850s King Mongkut (Rama IV) had many photographs of himself and court made to mirror European portrait photographs received as gifts and which he returned in-kind. A practise continued even more assiduously by his son Rama V, King Chulalongkorn. Locals and members of the court also acquired photography skills (details are in various Thai histories as yet not available in English). Luang Wisut Yothamat (Mot Amatyakun) the Director of the Siam Mint, made portraits of the Royal couple using a daguerreotype camera sent by Queen Victoria to the King in 1856.

Access to the Thai Royals was granted to foreign photographers including Swiss Pierre Rossier (on assignment in Asia for Negretti and Zambra of London) who was in Bangkok in 1861 and made ethnographic studies and a Royal portrait for Firmin Bocourt a French zoologist and illustrator in Thailand on a naturalist expedition.

Bishop Pallegoix or French priests probably trained the Thai-Christian Khun Sunthonsathitlak (1830–1891) who began photography in the late 1850s, worked for the technologically-minded dual monarch Phra Pinklao, before opening his own studio in 1863 under the name 'Francis Chit & Co' (later & Sons). He was skilled in wet-collodion work and made numerous portraits, views and records of events including a large panorama of Bangkok in 1864.

In early 1862 Isidore van Kinsbergen (1821–1905) the official photographer accompanying a Dutch delegation visiting from Batavia, made a range of views, portraits and studies of antiquities. Wilhelm Burger (1844–1920) a professional photographer attached to the Austrian diplomatic and trade mission was briefly in Bangkok in May 1869. He later marketed stereoviews of his travels to Vietnam and Japan. Francis Chit & Co photographs were regularly bought by visitors but most ended up uncredited when shown or reproduced in Europe.

A number of ambitious artists also went to Southeast Asia;. John Thompson (1837–1921) after his first few years as a photographer based in Singapore in 1861–1864, transformed into a freelance 'travel' photographer and set off for Bangkok where in 1865 he photographed King Mongkut and his court as well as other subjects before travelling to his real goal, the fabled Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia in early 1866.

Chit and Co outlasted foreign competitors attracted to Bangkok such as Henry Schuren who visited from Singapore in 1874 and gained a Royal 'Appointment' (it was never an exclusive honour) then set up in Bangkok in 1876 but was replaced in 1879 by G.R. Lambert from the flourishing Singapore firm, who made a lengthy visit to Bangkok that year. British photographer William K. Loftus worked in Bangkok from 1887–1891 but his work was rather dull.

Increasingly from the 1860s illustrated magazines used photographs as the basis for illustrations and received images and stories from 'world tours' undertaken by a broader range of travellers facilitated by the improved travel routes and methods, modelled in some cases on the new 'Royal tours' undertaken by European and Asian kings and courtiers. Populist illustrated traveller's tales also flourished. The buoyant young French attache Ludovic, Comte de Beauvoir for example, collected photographs assiduously in 1865–1867 on a tour with a French Royal, and used these as the basis for illustrations in his best selling books which began in 1869, with Java, Siam, Canton : voyage autour du monde.


Burma [Myanmar]

After three Anglo-Burmese Wars beginning in 1824, from 1886 north and south Burma were conquered and administered as part of British India. The last Burmese Kings, Mindon and Thebaw (prior to his exile in 1886) were photographed and later had court photographers but no daguerreotypes are known and the earliest extant photography in Burma is connected to British military expeditions. In 1853 East India Company Surgeon John MacCosh (1805–1885) an experienced amateur photographer, made views and ethnographic portraits while on duty in Burma during the Second Anglo-Burmese War but his work had limited circulation. By contrast, in 1855 Captain Linnaeus Tripe (1822–1902) posted from Madras as the official photographer to the well equipped Indian Government diplomatic mission to King Mindon's remote northern court at Ava. Tripe executed some 200 large paper negatives which concentrating on structures and topography, have an eerie empty stillness and were used as the basis for illustrations in the official Narrative of the expedition of 1858. More impressive and influential were the massive 120 image portfolios of original prints published under Tripe's authority in 1858 by the Madras Government. Major Williams, an engineer and amateur photographer, accompanied the Edward Bosc Sladen expedition through Burma to China in 1868.

Military training in photography was also the path to a new vocation for J. Jackson (with fellow Private Bentley) who established a long running and prolific studio in Rangoon in 1865. Not all newcomers were British. The German professional photographer Philip Klier (1845–1911) began work in 1871 in Moulmein, lower Burma then at Rangoon where he was in partnership with J. Jackson in 1885–1890. His output was high in quality and extensive and represents the consolidation of the mass-market views trade over the 1880s–1890s—a world wide trend.

Lieutenant-Colonel Willoughby Wallace Hooper (1837–1912) on the British Expeditionary Force during the Third Burmese War produced a set of one hundred images in 1887 that he declared 'were taken entirely for his own amusement and from love of the art' as did Colonel Robert Graham (1838-1918) with his photographically illustrated book on the War released in 1887. Captain-Surgeon Arthur George Newland (1857–1924) published his The image of war, or Service on the Chin Hills with fine gravures in 1894.

Perhaps the earlier Burmese War publications scotched the plans of the Italian born Felice Beato (1825-1907) who arrived in Rangoon in 1886. He had made a name in war photography in India in 1858 and China in 1860 and for his prolific Japanese scenes and types over his long years there in the 1860s-1870s. Beato stayed on and set up a studio in Mandalay producing some war related scenes and studio tableaux of Burmese Beauties. He also travelled into the inner region and produced a substantial but now lesser-known body of work. By 1895, Beato had expanded into a quite large photography, furniture and artefacts manufacturing and postcard business. He employed a number of local photographers including in particular H.N. Samuels who wife and daughter apparently modelled local costumes in the Beato studio portraits of local 'types.'

The boom in Burma induced regional studios to set up branches. Frederick Skeen of Skeen and Co in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) arrived in 1887 to set up a branch and worked as Watts and Skeen. The work of the 1880s generation benefited from the introduction of the faster and more convenient dry-plate which allowed for more varied and lively subjects and atmosphere. The firm may have sold Beato material in Ceylon and their inventory seems to have been taken over by Beato after Skeen returned to Ceylon in 1903. Studios based in India also sent representatives including the well-known firm of Bourne and Shepherd.

Anthropology a new science also became codified and politicised in the 1860s and a number of uncredited photographers provided ethnographic images from Burma to the multi-volume Peoples of India publication of 1868–1875. Guidelines for scientific anthropometric studies were developed in the late 1860s following strict guidelines but these were rarely implemented. Some ethnographic studies were in fact more like early forms of pin-up girls and the fine-looking Burmese women in their restrained elegant costume proved especially appealing to European taste. A more sympathetic eye and ethnographic interest came from Sir George Scott who took up photography in 1888 and published a set of volumes on the Shan States.



The great abandoned temples of Cambodia, at times under Siamese control, were to become the 'pyramids' of Asia. John Thomson was inspired to visit Cambodia after reading the 1864 English edition of French explorer Henri Mouthot's Travels in the Central Parts of lndo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos, during the Years 1858,1859, and 1860 which popularised the ruins. Illustrations after photographs in that (posthumous) book and the Tour du monde accounts of Muhout's travels 1868 were not by Mouhot but local photographers including Francis Chit. Thomson was not the first photographer at Angkor; his companion in 1867 British consular officer W.G. Kennedy had visited and taken photographs in 1856, but none are known to survive. Thomson was the first skilled technician and superior camera artist to make images there. His lively accessible prose ensured the success of his own first book of 1867 Antiquities in Cambodia illustrated with 16 original prints. His later publications were more widely disseminated as they had photomechanical illustration. The Cambodian work was also Thomson's entree to the learned societies of his homeland. Thomson returned to Saigon and photographed the Royal family there before returning to Britain.

Soon after Thomson's work at Angkor French military trained photographer Emile Gsell (1838-1879) was at work there in late 1866 with the French Mekong Exploring Expedition initiated and later led by Francis Gamier.

Typical of the many French military come civil servants and administrators who became passionate advocates for Asian culture was naval officer Louis Delaporte (1842–1925) on the French Government Mekong expedition which visited Angkor in 1866. He sought help from Thomson and Gsell and perfected his own photography for his later 1873–1874 expedition to Cambodia with F.C. Faraut, seeking constant improvement in architectural work through use of a planar lenses and gelatin processes. He exhibited at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris His interest came from his passion for archaeology and Khymer culture for which he helped found a Musee Indochinois du Trocadero .

The French tradition of the centralised grand scale cultural and scientific 'mission' meticulous and methodical was exemplified in the Mission Pavie teams of photographers. Delaporte sent Louis Fourneau on expeditions 1886-88 in which Captain Malgraive and Riviere also where made plates successfully at Angkor. The remarkable Jean Marc Bel and his wife an engineer made many voyages 1893.

International and local exhibitions formed a significant platform in the later 19th century to promote the colonial endeavours and as self promotion for photographers.


Vietnam and Laos

The French had a presence from the 1840s in Vietnam then known as Cochin China in the south and Tonkin in the north, and, as with the British in Burma, their control extended from the mid-1860s through various conflicts until effective control of Tonkin as well as the south came in 1885. Not surprisingly, French photographers were first to appear in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City): Charles Parant in 1864–1867 and Clement Gillet in 1865–1866. After his Mekon Expedition work, Emile Gsell went private and set up a studio in Saigon in 1866 becoming first long-term commercial photographer in Vietnam. Gsell however, also left Saigon in 1873 to join Louis Delaporte's expedition in Cambodia revisiting Angkor Wat. Gsell’s Angkor Wat pictures and panoramas earned him a medal at the Vienna International exhibition of 1874 where he also Cambodian and Vietnamese ethnographic studies. In 1876–1877 Gsell was also able to travel in north adding images of Tonkin to his stock which passed to other studios in Saigon after his early death in Saigon in 1879.

John Thomson returned to Asia in 1867 spending some months in Saigon and surrounds even trying to capture clouds without montage suggesting he may have been using a new process. He sent articles to The China Magazine but his Saigon work was not included in his 1875 book covering his The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China, or, Ten years 'travels, adventures and residence abroad.

As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, photographers migrated to new markets opened up by colonisation. M. Martin from Singapore was noted for fine landscape views in the 1880s. The Chinese diaspora reshaped many communities in Southeast Asia; Pun-Ky marketed cdv portraits of Annamite (Vietnam) types probably from the 1870s as did Pun-Lun who had worked in Hong Kong had a studio in Saigon (opposite that of Gsell) from 1869–1872. A rare Vietnamese name appears; Dang Huy Tru, a retired Mandarin who learnt photography while in China, had a studio in Hanoi from 1869 until the French occupation of 1873. He is claimed to have attracted Vietnamese clientele and developed a style of pose based on ancestor portraits but such posing was common to costume portraits and types across Southeast Asia. Other Vietnamese names do not appear although in 1896 Cam Ly was in business in Hanoi. By the 1880s Chinese-born photographers were at work in most regions chiefly in portrait work. Few of their archives are identifiable but some more substantial commissions survive such as the photographs of the French railway constructed from 1889–1897 between Hanoi and Lang Son which executed by Tong Sing. Yu Chong had a studio in Hanoi in 1893-1900.

A number of Europeans in service in Asia became interested in not only the culture of the past but had a feeling for the life of the contemporary peoples. Like so many men attached to the military abroad, Doctor Charles-Edouard Hocquard (1855–1911), who was on service in Tonkin in 1884-1885 in the Franco-Chinese War, published his photographs officially and privately. His field report on the war illustrated with Woodbury types was subtitled 'customs and beliefs of the Vietnamese, and was, serialised as 'Trente mois au Tonkin,' in Le tour du monde, 1889–1891. Aurelian Pestel (1855–1897) took up photography in Saigon in 1892 having arrived in Vietnam in 1883. He was also noted for showing the customs of the country beyond studio enactments.

The new generation rising in the late 19th century but coming most to the fore after 1900 in the early decades of the 20th century, looked beyond hard objects to lifestyle and customs, including Sub Lieutenant Etienne Francoise Aymonier (1844–1929) in the French Marine infantry in Saigon who learned the Cambodian and Vietnamese languages.
The image of Southeast Asia was shaped and defined by early photographers and the legacy inherited revolved around a nostalgia as well as scholarly pursuit of antiquities. Photomechanical reproduction in photogravure, carbon, and woodburytpe created a new industry at the turn of the century of which a former soldier sent to Hanoi in 1885, Pierre M. Dieufils of Saigon, is one of the best known. His distinctive landscape folio publica­tions were typical of the late 19th and early 20th century mass-produced works.

Gael Newton 2008

See also:

my other entry: South-East Asia 19th C Photography: Malaya, Singapore, and Philippines

Related entries in ‘National Surveys: Southeast Asia’ in Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Editor John Hannavy, Routledge 2008: Burger, Wilhelm Joseph; Chit, Francis; Itier, Jules; Thomson, John; and Expedition Photography.

Further Reading

Anek Nawikkamun, Tamnan naiphap kao I" Anek Nawikkamun. Phim khrang raek Krung Thep: Samnakphim Matichon, 1998. (Anake Nawikkamun is author of a number of detailed histories of photography in Thailand that await translation.)

Aubenas, Sylvie et af, Photographes en Indochine: Tonkin, An-nam, Cochinchine, Camboge et Laos au XIX Siecle, Marval and Reunion des Musees Nationaux, Paris, 2001.

Pongrapeepom Pipat. The Panorama of Bangkok in the Reign of King Rama IV: A New Discovery by Pipat Pongrapeepom, Photographs by Francis Chit. Bangkok: Muang Boran Publishing House, 2001.

Peleggi, Maurizio, Lords of Things, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

Moeshart, Herman J., "Daguerreotypieren unter der Tropensonne. Adolph Schafer in Niederlandisch-Indien," In Silber und Salz. Zur Friihzeit der Photographie im deutschen Sprachraum, 1839-1860, edited by Bodo von Dewitz and Reinhard Matz, Cologne: Edition Braus, 1989.

Falconer, John, "Photography and ethnography in the colonial period in Burma." In Frontier Photography Burma, 29.

Singer, Noel R, Burma a photographic journey 1855-1925, Stirling: Paul Strahan-Kiscadale Ltd, 1993.

Singer, Noel, and Felice Beato's, "Burmese Days," Arts of Asia (September-October, 1998): 96–107.

Moeshart, Herman. "Daguerreotypes by Adolph Schaefer." History of Photography 9 (July-September 1985): 211–218.

Jehel, Pierre-Jerome, Photographie et anthropologie en France au XIXe siecle. Memoire de DEA 'Esthetique, sciences et technologie des arts' UFR 'Arts, Philosophie et esthetique.' Universite Paris VIII. Saint Denis.



asia-pacific-photography   /   contacts  /  photo-web