FRENCH in NORTHERN CHINA c. 1910 - PHOTOGRAPHS
This offering consists of 80 photographs of French army life, and the lives of the Chinese who worked for or intermingled with the French in the French Concession in Northern China. Some photographs depict scenes in the surrounding area. There is a notable series of portraits of Chinese people, in a large format. The photos are glue-mounted on both sides of heavy card stock, 10 ⅛” x 13 ⅜”. They vary in size: most fall in a range between roughly 4 ½” x 6 ½”, though a handful are smaller (1 ¾” x 1 ¾” in four cases, 2” x 2 ¾” in two others). Two photos are a bit larger; these measuring approximately 7 ½” x 5 ½”. One of these occupies its own page. Most of the photos are landscape mounted, though the portraits of the Chinese subjects are portrait mounted, as are a few of the other photos. Since the pages are unbound, there is no way to tell how they were organized, or even if they were organized.
The focus is uniformly clear, and with a few over-exposed exceptions, the photographs exhibit rich dark tones and sharp crisp contrasts.
What distinguishes these photographs, apart from the historical interest of a much-different time in a much-different place, is the sheer quality of the compositions, and the humanity of the photographer, who documents his subjects without filigree, with a formality that never feels oppressive.
Of course, one of the more intriguing aspects of the photographs is the relationship it shows between the French and the Chinese. While the French are clearly in control, they don’t seem intent on the subjugation of the Chinese population. Some photos show only Chinese subjects; in most of the others, Chinese subjects appear with the French soldiers, though clearly in subordinate roles.
Donkeys seem to have been the primary means of transportation (other than one. Horses appear now and then, memorably in one photo where a line of lancers or cavalrymen pose formally, squared up for the camera. With only two or three exceptions, the horses play their roles admirably. Impatience, or the presence of a horsefly have caused the exceptions to shake their heads and become mere motion blur, handed down from the past.
A line of camels makes its way through town, photographed from above, casually. A school group poses with both Chinese and French instructors (one guesses). One boy performs the duty of the obligatory tree climber. A group of soldiers pose in front of a section of the Great Wall that seems to have been victimized by a proto-tagger. Soldiers play croquet while their Chinese employees look on. One set of photographs documents the construction of an octagonal bandstand, and then its winter-time completion. The names of famous French composers (Boieldieu and Auber are the only two that can be seen) ornament the fascia.
Long ago and far away, these photographs document a relatively (keyword, relatively) benign tranche of colonialism, one that is now swept away, gone with the wind.
One photo is missing. All are shown.