A Lasting Memento: John Thomson’s Photographs Along the River Min at Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), June 1, 2019 – May 17, 2020

“The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents a voyage into 19th-century China through one of PEM’s photographic treasures, John Thomson’s rare album Foochow and the River Min. More than forty striking landscapes, city views, and portrait studies are on view, captured by Thomson as he traveled in the Fujian province in Southeast China from 1870 to 1871. These prints are complemented by a selection of photographs by contemporary artist Luo Dan, who was inspired by Thomson to undertake his own journey in southwestern China in 2010.

From 1870 to 1871, Scottish-born photographer John Thomson traveled 160 miles up the River Min to document the area in and around the city of Fuzhou (Foochow), one of the most picturesque regions in China. Thomson gathered eighty photographs from this voyage into an album titled Foochow and the River Min which was sold by advance subscription to the foreign residents of Fuzhou — tea planters, merchants, missionaries and government officials — who wanted a way to share their experiences with friends and family back home. Of the 46 copies originally published, fewer than 10 survive today and PEM is privileged to own two of them, both of which are featured in the exhibition.” — Peabody Essex Museum

John Thomson, Yen Ping Rapid, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

John Thomson, A Wreck in the Rapids, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

John Thomson, A Rapid Boat, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

John Thomson, A Rustic Bridge, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

John Thomson, A Small Temple at Ku-Shan, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

John Thomson, Road to the Plantation, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

John Thomson, Coolies, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

John Thomson, Mode of Dressing the Hair, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

John Thomson, The Upper Bridge, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

John Thomson, A Rapid Boat, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

John Thomson, Pagoda Island, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. .

“Many people have a conception of China as very industrialized and modern, even sterile, but these photographs complicate that notion and reveal the country’s incredible beauty and geographic diversity,” says Sarah Kennel, PEM’s Byrne Family Curator of Photography. “The roots of China’s rapid modernization go back to the 19th-century and are part of a larger history of maritime culture, trade, and globalization that are also entwined with PEM’s origin story. This exhibition affirms how photography can bring us back to another place in time and can change the way we see the world.”

A Lasting Memento: John Thomson’s Photographs Along the River Min is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum.

Images courtesy Peabody Essex Museum.