21st Century Types

Picturing the Chinese

This book documents photographs taken by Westerners in China during the latter 19 th Century. These images provide evidence for a particular way of visualizing and were intended mainly for the foreign Western market at a period when Asia became a fascinating source of exotic and curious culture, fine porcelain and silks, and tea.

My subsequent project, “21 st Century Types”, is inspired by research material carried out for my former “Picturing the Chinese” (which is presently out of print).


21st Century Types
Hastings: An Archive

124 pages

A selection of photos from the project are shown here. The book contains a total of 55 images, more of which can be viewed in the online shop.

“Through this project I am making an oblique comment on Imperialist visions of the ‘exotic’ Chinese and by reversing roles, I have become the Imperialist photographer documenting my exotic subjects in the ‘Port’ of Hastings. The question of cultural representations in the archive is highlighted through my constructed tableaux and conflation of history. I have additionally created a unique archive of 400 subjects in a British seaside town during the summer of 2005.”
— Grace Lau

My portrait project combines and address two separate issues: the genre of contemporary portraiture, and the politics of cultural representation. It also explores cultural collision between the East and West, through a conflation of historic period – from the 1850s to 2005.

The concept started in 2004 when I was commissioned by a renowned writer of Chinese culture to research and write a book on Western views of the Chinese as represented by photographers who travelled to Asia shortly after the invention of photography in 1839. Although China was not officially colonized by the West, the way it was represented can only be understood within the global context of colonialism. And for over half a century from 1839, the photographic portraits that came out of Asia did much to shape Western perceptions of the mysterious, exotic Orientals, a vision that has endured to the present.

Photography accompanied the increasingly aggressive Euro-American penetration of China prompted by territorial and trade expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century. The penetration also involved scientists of many disciplines who required photography to document their medical, ethnographical, anthropological, botanic specimens for their own research agenda, and their categorisation of human ‘types and customs’ set a systematic formula for measuring cultural behaviour of peoples across the colonies. For example, medical scientists used illustrations of disfigured patients with large tumours to highlight the efficacy of Western science and medicine, thus acquiring more funding for their profession overseas.

‘Types’ were also recorded by Western missionaries who portrayed beggars, blind orphans and scenes of poverty to raise money from back home for their cause, and to convert ‘the heathens from their backward ways’. Some set up schools and hospitals for their purpose.

During this period, China endured devastating conflicts through the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Treaty Ports being opened to Western trade and military, as well as experiencing the influence of advanced Western technology including photography. Western photographers such as John Thomson and Felice Beato and William Saunders used their large plate cameras to capture the foreign landscape, people and culture in this ‘exotic’ new continent. They also constructed Victorian type portrait studios, with elaborately painted backdrops, Persian carpets, pot plants and other European props, where they ‘displayed’ their Chinese subjects. Ironically, many of these were street beggars or traders who appeared uncomfortable in the elegant European studio set-up, but other subjects such as prostitutes found this medium helped to promote their own profession through reproductions of their portrait as cartes-de-visite.

The majority of the portrayed subjects were anonymous and ultimately they were reduced to types or stereotypes. Many studio portraits were collected into photographic albums by a Western market which sought to obtain and possess ‘realistic’ portraits of foreign and exotic overseas peoples. These albums are now becoming rare and expensive to purchase at auction houses and specialist dealers and collectors.

Based on in-depth research material compiled for Picturing the Chinese: Early Western Photographs and Postcards of China, I subsequently commenced my own major photography project in 2005 with support funding from the Arts Council of England. It was my response, as an artist, to the visions of Chinese people that were represented by Western travellers’ photographs in the latter 1800s.

During the summer, I recreated a portrait studio in Hastings following the style of Victorian studios. My props included an elaborately painted backdrop with Oriental colours and details in front of the ubiquitous patterned carpet, a Chinese antique chair, a sedan chair, and a side table with a clock. An artificial panda rug represented an ironic nod to the tiger skin rugs that were popular with Victorians. These objects were all found amongst Hastings’ many antique and junk shops.

Then I set out to find my subjects: my ‘types’ from the diverse local communities strolling along the seafront. I found people were intrigued by the exotic studio setting and collaborated willingly when asked to hold formal poses, as in Victorian portraits. The discrepancy between the historic cultural studio context and the modern appearance of my subjects is highlighted through the formal presentation and accentuated by their personal accoutrements such as coke bottles, chips, ice-cream, mobile phones, sunglasses and plastic shopping bags.

Camera equipment consisted of my thirty-year old Hasselblad film camera on a tripod, using colour negative film and natural ambient light. The constructed studio was set within a glass-fronted art gallery on the seafront where passersby could easily observe what was happening inside. People were intrigued by the Oriental studio setting and willingly collaborated in establishing formal poses, like the Victorian portraits, for my camera. I asked them to keep their modern accessories visible in the frame, to highlight the discrepancy between the historic context and the contemporary subjects, so their coke bottles, ice cream, chips, mobile phones, sunglasses and plastic shopping bags were visible signifiers of contemporary stereotypes.

My project carried through the summer of 2005, and the open portrait studio became popular amongst the eclectic Hastings residents and tourists; types of characters became identifiable as artists, overseas visitors, gay couples, families on holiday, youth groups, dog owners, bikers, fishermen, etc.

The following year I was invited by the Photofusion Photography Gallery to exhibit a selection of my Hastings portraits and this exhibition subsequently toured to the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales; to the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, and four images selected for Tate Britain’s major retrospective exhibition How We Are: Photographing Britain in 2007.




This project has appeared in two books; How We Are: Photographing Britain and When Photography Really Works, both by Val Williams.


This project appeared in various publications.
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