Portraits of the past
Updated: 2011-05-25 07:50
By Wang Ru (China Daily)
Top: August Plemenick sat at the Temple of Heaven in 1900. Middle: The portrait of a landlord's wife. Below: A teahouse in Shanghai. Photos Provided to China Daily
A set of 204 photos taken by an Austrian musician in China more than a century ago discovered in a basement in California offers a different picture of the nation in the early 1900s. Wang Ru reports.
A century ago, August Plemenick, an Austrian traveling in Beijing, sat on a stone step surrounded by weeds. Behind him was Qinian Hall of the Temple of Heaven, where Chinese emperors prayed to the heavens for a good harvest every year. As the professional musician, in his neat suit, clicked a picture of the silent temple, the country was going through radical changes. It was the first decade of the 20th century, and foreign invasions and domestic uprisings were speeding up the collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the last imperial rule in China. Plemenick, then 20, had left Austria in 1900. He traveled to China where he developed his musical career, playing oboe with the symphony that entertained the European communities living in Beijing at the time.
In addition to his oboe, the talented amateur photographer brought with him a Reitzschel, an old-fashioned camera. From 1900 to 1911, he lived and traveled in China, taking pictures, when few could afford either the time or the money for such luxuries.
As one of the few Westerners allowed in the Forbidden City, Plemenick got to take rare pictures inside when the emperor was still in power. He also witnessed the German general Waldersee lead the Eight-Power Allied Forces to march in front of Tian'anmen, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
Most existing pictures about China then reflect the chaos and struggle of those times. But perhaps because Plemenick was first a musician and then an artist, his photos present a slightly different China of that period.
About his China photos, he wrote: "I could not fully describe the natural beauty of the landscape, the inherent dignity of the people, the magnificent temples, the bustling markets, the great Yellow River, the crumbling villages That is why I took these photographs. In them, for me, China at the turn of the century continues to live."
Plemenick traveled from Guangdong to Nanjing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Shanghai Beijing, Shandong and places in between. With his sturdy camera, a dozen lenses and a tripod, he recorded his impressions of China.
Many rural dwellers where he traveled had never seen such equipment, and the images he captured show China at the turn of the century better than any words can describe.
The Austrian musician shows a clear respect and appreciation for the aesthetic value of Chinese culture. Most of his pictures capture the beauty of the unique landscape and architecture in minute detail.
Such images as the magnificent Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, a downtown teahouse in Shanghai and elegant gardens in Suzhou, Plemenick's photo archive is perhaps the most complete encyclopedia of ancient Chinese architecture, some of which has already been ruined or altered beyond recognition.
Plemenick learned to speak both Mandarin and Cantonese. He also spoke English, French, Italian, Russian and his native tongue German. He made friends with some locals, mostly rich landlords.
His lens recorded daily life in China then, capturing images of women and children, vendors and boat trackers, landlords and peasants in different areas.
As each box of glass plates was exposed, he dispatched them to the Lumiere agency in Beijing or Shanghai for processing.
Plemenick left China and settled in the United States in the wake of World War I. He became an American citizen and began his long career as the first oboe player for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
Plemenick took his China photo negatives to the US. After his death in 1963, his negatives were kept and stored by his nephew.
Nothing is known of whether any original prints were made during Plemenick's time in China. But a number of prints were made from the glass negatives for a group photo exhibition in New York in the 1970s. However, there was no catalog and little or no record of the show.
That is Monte James, an international art consultant, who lives in Beijing, acquired the negatives last year.
James was introduced to Plemenick's nephew in the US a couple of years ago.
"His nephew kept the negatives in the basement of his house. The first glimpse at the glass-plate negatives made me realize it was not the proper place for the invaluable legacies," James says. "Luckily, the glass negatives have survived in nearly perfect condition.
"He is a collector of many things but, when he learned I've worked in China for several years, he told me a story about his uncle who had lived in China, played music, and traveled and took photos during the years between 1900 and 1910," James tells China Daily.
"Many historic photos of China from the turn of the century have a brutal quality and often focus on the conflict and hardship of the time. There is no question that the European occupiers left a legacy in China not to be forgotten," James says.
After buying the entire set of original glass negatives at a "very high price without bargaining", James constructed a dark room in the United States, bought the best matte paper, new lenses and required chemicals with the goal of producing photos. He hired a photo processing expert to produce hard copies in high resolution.
James is also arranging a number of invitation-only salons to introduce the collection to Chinese scholars, collectors and other interested people.
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