Felice Beato

Felice Beato (1832-1909) was an Italian-born British photographer who traveled to China from 1860 to 1861. He left his footmarks in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Beijing and Tianjin, documenting the early images of historic sites including the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Anding Gate, the Five Genii Temple, Hui Kung Temple etc. The significance of his journey is that he traveled with the Anglo-French military forces and thus became the witness of the Second Opium War. Equally worthy of note is that Beato traveled in China with Charles Wirgman, who was the correspondent for the Illustrated London News. Charles Wirgman enabled Beato to publish his photographs on modern paper media. This traveling partner also helped Beato develop a sense of photojournalism, which gave birth to his politically charged wartime documents. The unusual purpose of the trip complicated the historical significance of Beato’s photographs, which also differentiate his photographic practices in Asia from John Thompson’s and George L. Mackay’s. Unlike Thompson’s interest in ethnographic studies or Mackay’s passion for documenting Christian missions, Beato’s images represent brutal battlefield scenes and human corpses. A British military physician, Dr. David F. Rennie, recalled in his memoir of the campaign: "I passed into the fort, and a distressing scene of carnage disclosed itself. . . . Signor Beato was here in great excitement, characterising the group as 'beautiful, ' and begging that it might not be interfered with until perpetuated by his photographic apparatus, which was done a few minutes afterwards. "


Felice Beato

Interior of the Angle of North Fort

21 August, 1860

Medium

Albumen silver print

Dimensions

9 5/8 x 11 3/4" (24.4 x 30 cm)

© 2016 The Museum of Modern Art


Beato’s photographs were later compiled as albums and circulated among governmental officials in Europe. As scholars such as Andrew F. Jones and Wu Hung pointed out, his photographs function not only as mementos of the war but also as colonial currency betraying the desire of colonialism to conquer this land. Many of Beato’s photographs are panoramic, which features the grandeur of the landscape in China. This shows his pioneering spirits in experimenting with new technology. What is more striking, as both Andrew F. Jones and Wu Hung have argued, is that the photographs downplay and even wipe out local people from the architectural space where they dwelled. The symptomatic disappearance of Chinese people in Beato’s photographs reminds us that photography in a global context is more of an ideological production, and its composition and narrative exposes political purposes.

Felice Beato

North and East Corner of the Wall of Pekin

1860

Medium

Albumen silver prints

Dimensions

9 9/16 x 23" (23.4 x 58.5 cm)

© 2016 The Museum of Modern Art


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© 2016 by Harvard Visual China, affliated with Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts and Science