Fotograf Magazine

…and the Chinese cliffs emerged out of the mist

Publication date of 2010 aside, the book and the Chinese cliffs emerged out of the mist… came out at the end of 2011. The subject of the book is suggested by its subheading Perceptions and Image of China in Early Photographs). The delay in publication was caused by the difficulties in identifying some of the places in the photographs. Many have since changed beyond recognition, so that even those with specialized knowledge of contemporary China were unable to identify the locations.
The authors of the main essays in the book, Filip and Marcela Suchomel, outline numerous ways of representing China and its people, once considered remote and inaccessible, from a variety of vantage points: by explaining the interests and context of the 19th century, presenting different photographic materials, and also showing examples of the rendition of same in the medium of woodcuts. They also indicate the manner used for colouring photographs, and describe the stylization of illustrations derived from periodicals and books of the time. The researches track the evolution of different forms of documentation, and in particular analyze the advance and deployment of the photographic medium, which came to the fore largely due to its ability to capture reality with greater precision. They document the gradual boom of photography in the activities of foreigners in the open Chinese ports of the era as well as in other localities. Photography of vedute or arranged shots of natives soon ceased to be the exclusive pursuit of visiting Europeans and Americans, as the pragmatic Chinese soon set up their own prospering businesses in this field.
Filip and Marcela Suchomel also studied period travelogues in their research. They perused available handwritten travel journals in order to understand what the images actually represented, as they were in fact taken in order to document their subject matter, not as a creative endeavor independent of its subject. As a result, we are rarely given the names of their authors.

The central section of the book consists of illustration plates featuring detailed captions. These offer 125 photographs from (among others) the Chinese collections of certain inhabitants of Moravia who brought them back from the distant empire in the 1860s and 1870s. The collection of marine officer Erwin Antonín A. Dubský is deposited at Chateau Lysice in Moravia; the circumstances of the acquisition of the collection of physician Jindřich Blažej Vávra – the birth name of the explorer Heinrich Wawra – can be gleaned from the epilogue of Hana Dvořáková. In her essay dedicated to the history of the Moravian Museum’s collection of photography she cites that the proud owner donated to the museum an extensive collection of exotica already during his lifetime, yet would not relinquish his collection of photography until the very end, as the pictures most vividly evoked for him the memories of his expeditions to five continents.

This extraordinary feat of publishing presents 249 illustrations over 296 pages in 295 x 235 mm format, with sober but compelling graphic design by Martin Pivrnec. The album of exquisite albumen prints naturally also includes an index of names and places. An English-language version is published separately. The book is a co-production between the renowned publishers Arbor vitae and the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, both of whose editions are highly remarkable in their own right.

Josef Moucha