John Thompson photo exhibit

From July 18th to mid-October 2020, ShungYe Museum of Formosan Aborigines (順益台灣原住民博物館) in Taipei will exhibit fifty photos of Taiwan in April 1871 (and related 30 original woodcuts) by John Thomson, travelling with fellow Scotsman Dr James Laidlaw Maxwell — who established the first Presbyterian chapels in Taiwan and its first western style medical dispensary.

Practically no silver-based albumen prints of this series have survived. The fifty pigment-based digital prints exhibited are by Michael Gray, from his (film contact) high-resolution scans  of Thomson’s original glass-negatives preserved at Wellcome Library.

This exhibition is an updated version of a first one by Françoise Zylberberg and René Viénet in 2006  during Taipei International Book Exhibition, then in 2008 at National Taiwan University Library, with lectures by Richard Ovenden, John Falconer, William Schupbach, Barbara & Michael Gray —  together with the only known framed set of the original 96 collotypes plates (218 views) from Thomson’s “Illustrations of China and its people…

Brought to Taiwan in 1980, it  took twenty five years for the images to be known in Taiwan outside the departments of ethnography,  as those photos of  Formosa  (the earliest ones, apart from a rare album by St Julian Hugh Edwards) did not include Han people but only PingPuZu, the lowlands Aborigines.  After Lee TengHuei became President of the Republic, the status of the Aboriginal inhabitants was better recognized,  and the original settlers of Formosa became part of Taiwan identity and narrative.

Viénet has commissioned the Chinese translations and edited several John Thomson books in Macao, Fuzhou, and Taiwan: John Thomson’s mémoires; “Ten Year travels …” translated by Yen HsiangJu. In August 2020, Taiwan Locus Publishers will release the full reproduction of  “Illustrations of China and its people”, translated by Yeh LinFang.  In year 2006,  John Thomson article in the Royal Geographic Society on his Taiwan trip had already been published in a translation by Huang ShihHan.

There is a further project: to display outdoors, in the mountain trails where Thomson and Maxwell travelled,  large dimensions digital prints by Michael Gray of the full Taiwan series. To withstand sunshine and rain, all these prints are coated with Tong Oil : Following the traditional technique used by the HakKa folk for their waterproofing of paper umbrellas, the prints become transparent and waterproof and resistant, to the extent that no frames are needed, just bamboo rods to hang them in the manner of Chinese scroll paintings.

This overall project started almost half a century ago, when Viénet, in year 1978, identified John Thomson as the original photographer of  80 faded albumen prints in the French Société de géographie. These were Thomson’s original contact-prints supplied to his French publisher to prepare woodcuts, including eight images of  Taiwan. Ever since,  Viénet has cooperated with Michael Gray in multiple initiatives about John Thomson, the most successful being the year 2014 Macao Museum exhibition of the framed China collotypes (with 103,000 visitors),  and then in Paris [ ].

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