From the Armstrong collection (Shanghai Municipal Police). 1920
© 2007 Adam Scott Armstrong
HPC ref: Ar03-169, Ar03-166, 165, 160,144,143,143,123,104 (In order of appearance)
It's always interesting to see how people position themselves, and how they are read as a result of that positioning. The Historical Photographs of China archive, which is based in Bristol is positioned academically.
It's a good position to be in. The archive is made up of a mass of private albums; some personal, some corporate, some work related. Most of them are from British people who worked there in the 19th and early 20th century so it ends up being a record of China under constructiion. You can see Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong rise up over the album pages. The buildings, the transport, are the infrastructure are tracked, as is British power and the use of vernacular photography.
There are also personal stories; the British families who move there, who climb up the colonial ladder as they settle into their new homes. And as they do so you can see the albums become richer and more complex. You see the cameras get fancier and the pictures richer and more varied. And the families change. The domestic cast changes as family wealth increases, as what was a comfortable but not-wealthy family suddenly finds itself living in a mansion with a cast of gardeners, housekeepers and cooks to keep them company. It's a subject worth investigating in itself.
But although it's a great academic resource, it's also a photographic resource. Strangely enough, there's not much crossover between the two, possibly because academia is a closed world and so is photography (as we know it). Both like to keep to themself, neither likes to stray too far outside its comfort zone. I'm not sure why that's the case. Maybe it's not the case, but it certainly seems to be the way things are placed into little boxes which become a particular territory for particular people and woe betide anybody who steps beyond the lines which bound them.
Never mind the little boxes. Both photography and academia are too big to be bound, with enough broad-minded people who will transform fossilised culture. Especially when every now and then, things spring out that are begging for a non-academic treatment, that need a photobook or an installation or a lightbox to do it justice.
This is the case with the Historical Photographs of China archive. There are so many things that jump out (the families, the bombing series, the construction, the spies) but probably top of the list are the pictures of the Shanghai Police from the Armstrong Collection. They start off recognisably enough, with images of police headquarters and then some rakish pictures of officers.
But keep on going and they start going mad; portraits of villagers cut out and printed against a black background. They look fantastic but you wonder why they were made this way. The pictures are dated 1920 - 1923 so it could be the photographer had some Avant Garde connections in Shanghai, that a bit of collage or constructivism had come his way via the White Russians who flooded to the city during that time. Or was there a German connection? Had the photographer been immersing himself in the Shanghai Dada Club at the time? I think that something like that happened. The pictures and the collaging are really rough (didn't get past Hoch Lesson 1) but they still look fantastic.