December 3rd, 2013
Victoria Peak seen from Kellett Island
Last week, an exhibition of images by 19th century Scottish photographer John Thomson opened at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, including 22 photos of Hong Kong in the 1860s that have never been exhibited here before. I’ve written a story about the photos and their journey to Hong Kong for the Wall Street Journal, which you can read here.
The photos are remarkable not only because they are rare — photography was still in its infancy — but also because, despite the technological handicap, Thomson was able to create some very engaging landscapes and portraits. When I spoke with curator Betty Yao, she told me her initial attraction to Thomson’s work came from his sensitive images of women in China, whether a rich Manchu girl or a Cantonese boatwoman. But his images of everyday urban life are just as striking, capturing as they do a Hong Kong that is recognizable only in its broadest outlines. Below, a selection of images; you can see more here, and if you happen to be in Hong Kong sometime before February 16, it’s well worth a trip to the Maritime Museum to see the rest of the collection, which also includes some very intriguing photos of the cities once known as Canton (Guangzhou), Swatow (Shantou) and Amoy (Xiamen).
September 29th, 2006
It’s hard to understate the importance of cities. Throughout human history, they have produced the greatest ideas, most influential movements and most productive revolutions. They also reflect the human condition: in a world that is now mostly urban, cities tell us about ourselves. Our greatest achievements and our most profound miseries are embodied by the brick and mortar beast of urbanity. Cities are more than just concentrations of people — they are the collective product of their inhabitants’ individual hopes, dreams and efforts.
Yet many people do not understand their own cities. They have not been exposed to the intricacies of urban life; they don’t know how to read their city as it exists. I don’t mean to sound pedantic. After all, none of us can ever really understand a city — it’s in their nature to be inscrutable and amorphous. But we should do our best to develop what I like to call an urban eye: a perspective that observes cities as they are and traces from the ground up their impact on our own lives and society as a whole. The simplest way to do this is to walk down the street and observe what’s there. Buildings, sidewalks, signs, graffiti, cars — all of these everyday objects tell us a lot about the life of the city and its inhabitants.
That’s what I’ve tried to do at Urbanphoto since I started it in 1999. Over the years, I have, with the help of many others, tried to investigate cities through word and photography. This fall, as Urbanphoto neared its seventh anniversary, I decided it was time for a change. After all of these years, it needed a better way to fulfill its mission. So today, I am relaunching it as a collaborative blog.