Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 7, 2020
Anthony W. Lee The Global Flows of Early Scottish Photography: Encounters in Scotland, Canada, and China McGill/Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation Studies in Art History 26. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019. 344 pp.; 193 color ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780773557130)

The history of photography has long been written along geographic boundaries. Until recently nation-based narratives, especially those of Great Britain, France, and the United States, dominated the field, and when new studies representing long-neglected corners of the world appeared, they tended to replicate the well-established examples that preceded them. Within the past decade, however, scholars have begun to shift emphasis from individual photographers and nations to the circulation of images and transnational exchange, presenting local practices within a much wider context of global contact and dissemination. The Global Flows of Early Scottish Photography: Encounters in Scotland, Canada, and China is such a study. Anthony W. Lee’s book examines how the forces of globalization impacted the use of photography in shaping the visual representation of Scottishness during the mid-nineteenth century. His method is informed by Arjun Appadurai’s concept of “global flows,” which shifts focus from national to local identities in order to counter the center-periphery model and emphasize individual perspectives.

The book is organized into three case studies that span the British Empire geographically from Scotland to Canada to China and chart a chronology from the development of the fragile calotype to the advent of photographically illustrated publications. Starting with the Edinburgh-based partnership of David O. Hill and Robert Adamson, Lee discusses their photographs of Newhaven fisherfolk as reflective of the local effects of an increasingly global fishing industry of the 1840s. He then traces the migration of two Lowland Scots of divergent class origins, William Notman, the middle-class son of a merchant, and Alexander Henderson, a scion of landed gentry, to Montreal, where they established photography studios that catered to the immigrant population of which they were part. Finally, Lee follows Edinburgh-born John Thomson to East Asia, where he brought a Scottish pastoral sensibility to photographs of the Chinese landscapes in order to confirm and appeal to British imperial desires. This organizational trajectory from Scotland across the “imperial trail” (5) is neatly conceived and allows Lee to establish how these photographers negotiated an identity for themselves through their cameras—in relation to the British Empire and amid global encounters. Throughout, the book benefits greatly from the author’s attention to the social forces that shape the migrant experience, a topic that he has explored previously with great nuance in Picturing Chinatown: Art and Orientalism in San Francisco (University of California Press, 2001) and A Shoemaker’s Story (Princeton University Press, 2008).

Here, Lee examines how photographers relied upon a Scottish pastoral mode to smooth tensions wrought by modernity. In his first case study, he shows how Hill and Adamson’s interest in the Newhaven fisherfolk was part of a larger process by which an urban bourgeoisie cultivated a native Scottish culture from the traditions of the very people, including fisherfolk and Highlanders, whom they denied a place within the contemporary political economy. Borrowing a term from Andrew Noble, Lee argues that the “false pastoralism” represented symbolically by tartans and picturesque fishwives served the socioeconomic ambitions of Lowland Scots, who benefited most from union with Britain. Thus, Lee discusses the Newhaven photographs alongside examples of painter William Geikie’s genre scenes of the same subjects and contemporary travel accounts that singled out the fisherfolk for their quaint costumes and picturesque ways. Lee argues that Hill and Adamson placed their subjects within an environment revealing not only of the photographers’ anthropological interest in clothes and accessories but also of their attentiveness to labor and social relationships. In other words, they depicted the fisherfolk as both types and individuals. Notably, in an 1845 album Hill and Adamson captioned many of the Newhaven photographs with the sitters’ names; however, by 1859, Hill’s revised captions denied that individualism by evoking the language of Scottish pastoralism through references to Walter Scott. Lee’s comparison of these captions highlights the success of the idealized, pastoral mode.

In his second case study, Lee shifts the setting to Montreal of the 1850s–60s, to explore how Scottish pastoralism became a useful tool for migrants navigating social status across the British Empire. Both Notman and Henderson were part of an English-speaking minority that by 1840 held dominance over both French settlers and the First Nations peoples that the Europeans had displaced. Within the colonial context of Canada, Scottishness became effectively synonymous with Britishness. Likewise, the distinctions that separated Notman’s merchant-class origins from Henderson’s landed-gentry heritage, while still present, eroded in the global sphere, thus reflecting the triumph of the unionist nationalism model of Scottishness Lee explored in his first case study. Notman’s portraits of Montreal’s Scottish immigrant community, published in the book Portraits of British Americans (1865–68), succinctly demonstrates this point.

With the industrialization of photography, the camera became a powerful tool for constructing social identity. Yet, as Lee highlights, Notman’s and Henderson’s photographs belied their divergent class backgrounds. This is evident in Henderson’s abrupt turn away from portraiture (Notman’s bread and butter) to scenic views made on excursions into the wilderness of Quebec. Whereas Notman’s landscape photographs emphasized signs of modernity and industry, such as the construction of Victoria Bridge, Henderson’s transported the viewer to a sparsely populated countryside dotted with canoes, hunters, trappers, and loggers. Lee’s analysis of a series of staged hunting tableaux produced by Notman in 1866 provides one of the most satisfying passages in the book. Inspired by Canadian pastoral painter Cornelius Krieghoff’s Death of the Moose (1859), the photographs narrate the stalking and killing of a bear by an English colonel accompanied by two Huron guides and a French Canadian assistant. Lee convincingly demonstrates that the wilderness fantasy deployed hunting as a metaphor for colonial control. In the context of empire, the pastoral mode offered a means of assimilation by which foreign lands were reshaped to meet the expectations and standards of a British point of view.

Lee’s final case study concerns the negotiation of Scottish immigrants’ identity within an expanded British Empire, focusing on Thomson’s position within the photographic community of Hong Kong. Significantly, Lee expands the scope of inquiry to consider the “global marketplace of images” (182) in which Thomson’s output must be considered, comparing his career, images, and audiences to those of his Chinese contemporaries Lai Afong and Tung Hing. He frames this discussion using Thomson’s reflections on the differences between Chinese and foreign photographers working in the treaty port published in his oft-cited 1872 essay “Hong Kong Photographers.” In his text Thomson recognizes the success of his professional counterparts and the existence of a distinctive Chinese photographic aesthetic but ultimately denigrates that vision as two-dimensional, or put another way, not fully modern. Thomson’s inability to acknowledge Chinese agency was in keeping with an imperial system that relied upon the basic assumption of British cultural superiority.

In a comparison of Thomson’s photobooks Views on the North River and Foochow and the River Min with Lai Afong’s and Tung Hing’s photographic journeys between Fujhou and the treaty ports, Lee investigates Thomson’s attempt to grapple with a distinctive Chinese point of view that he could see existed but that he could not fully understand. Unlike those earlier publications, Thomson’s comprehensive four-volume photobook Illustrations of China and Its People, issued upon his return to London, was resolute in its point of view where the earlier examples equivocated; its pseudoethnographic approach and pastoral aesthetic confirmed a British imperial desire for inland China against any aspiration to represent the place itself. This final case study is the strongest in the book, exploring the complexity of global encounters in Qing-era China in order to highlight the contingent boundaries across which identities were constructed through the camera’s lens. By emphasizing Thomson’s encounters with and differences from local Chinese photographers, Lee offers a model for charting the impact of transnational exchange on the development of photography.

In its emphasis on the representation of Scottishness, however, the narrative perpetuates a nation-based paradigm even as Lee attempts to work around it. This bears scrutiny for its relevance to the field’s shift toward a more integrated and global approach. The Scottishness that Lee identifies largely rests in subject matter rather than in technical or aesthetic uses of the medium of photography that can be identified as particular to the nation or culture. This shifts in the final chapter, however, as Lee charts Thomson’s encounter with rivals in Hong Kong doing something differently in their compositions in a way he cannot comprehend. Lee rightly presses on this confrontation to illuminate the impact that local points of contact had on the medium’s global development, thus building on the work of scholars such as Wu Hung who have also noted this characteristic aspect of photography produced in China’s treaty ports. The distinction between this case study and the others may lie in part in the conceptual underpinning of the notion of “global flows.” As originally conceived by Appadurai, the term addressed the conditions of twentieth-century modernity, yet Lee argues for its applicability to the prior century, contending that the period represents the juncture in which modernity was formed. If the nineteenth century indeed marks a turning point, then can the impact of “global flows” truly be identified in all local iterations of photography in its earliest period? Or, rather, does the nation-based model persist for a historically imperative reason? Is there something inherent to the medium—its status as a reproductive technology, perhaps—that is indicative of and imbricated in globalization itself? This aspect of the book’s premise presents a provocative but unresolved challenge for historians of photography.

Beth Saunders
Curator and Head of Special Collections, University of Maryland Baltimore County