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Lai Afong: The Pioneering Chinese Photographer of the 19th Century

Last Updated on 2023/09/07

Capturing Qing Dynasty China: The Mastery of Lai Afong’s Afong Studio.

Hailing from Gaoming, Guangdong, Lai Afong (黎芳) emerged as a beacon of photographic brilliance during the latter half of China’s Qing Dynasty. Born around 1838 or 1839, Afong’s early life found him seeking refuge in Hong Kong during the tumultuous times of the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s. While the origins of his proficiency in the wet-plate collodion process remain shrouded in mystery, historical traces point to his mastery of this art form as early as 1859.

Related articles: The First Photographs Of Hong Kong, The Second Opium War, And Beijing, Felice Beato In 1860

By the mid-1860s, Afong honed his skills under the guidance of José Joaquim Alves de Silveira, a renowned Portuguese photographer with a studio in Hong Kong. Stepping out of the shadows, Afong, with unwavering ambition, announced the inception of the Afong Studio around 1870, as recorded in an advertisement in the Hong Kong Daily Press.

Lai Afong, Hong Kong waterfront & buildings
Lai Afong, Hong Kong waterfront & buildings (source)

With a camera in hand, Afong meticulously captured the very essence of life – from the everyday faces of people to the buzzing social scenes of the times. His scope wasn’t just limited to human subjects; the sprawling cityscapes and idyllic landscapes also found a place in his extensive portfolio. Afong’s journey took him across various provinces, including Fujian, Guangdong, Hebei, and even to the now-bustling metropolis of Shanghai.

Afong Lai's designation as the official photographer for Tsarevich Grand Duke Alexis of Russia and Sir Arthur Edward Kennedy
Image on the front displays the coats of arms representing Afong Lai’s designation as the official photographer for Tsarevich Grand Duke Alexis of Russia and Sir Arthur Edward Kennedy GCMG, the 7th Governor from 1872-1877 (source)

The versatility in his subjects is evident in his breathtaking photographs of China’s architectural marvels. Among his notable captures are the intricate designs of the Summer Palace and the Fragrant Hills Pagoda in Beijing, the captivating Temple of the Six Banyan Trees in Guangzhou, and panoramic vistas like the Victoria harbor and the picturesque Gulangyu island.

Lai Fong, “A Mandarin’s Wife” 1870s
Lai Fong, “A Mandarin’s Wife” 1870s, source

As word of Afong’s unparalleled skill spread like wildfire, his studio in Hong Kong became a hub for elite patrons. From Qing dynasty luminaries like official Li Hongzhang to international figures like Governor of Hong Kong Sir Arthur Kennedy KCB and Russia’s Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, his clientele was as illustrious as it was diverse.

A Chinese Mother with Nurse and Children
A Chinese Mother with Nurse and Children, source

What set Afong apart from his contemporaries was his ability to seamlessly bridge two worlds. Catering to both Chinese and international tastes, he presented his art with bilingual captions in English and Chinese. Afong Studio’s allure wasn’t limited to Hong Kong’s locals. Both national patrons and overseas adventurers sought after his unique depictions of China.

Group Of Chinese Women With Fans, Canton, China (c1880) Afong Lai (RESTORED)
Group Of Chinese Women With Fans, Canton, China (c1880) Afong Lai (RESTORED), source

Though the specifics of Lai Afong’s personal journey remain elusive, his artistic legacy lives on. His masterpieces not only stand as visual records of his era but also as timeless testaments to his remarkable artistry. Following his demise in 1890, the torch was passed to his son, ensuring the Afong Studio’s contribution to photography endured.

Lai Afong, Three Coolies, Hong Kong
Lai Afong, Three Coolies, Hong Kong, source

Lai Afong’s Influence on 19th Century Chinese Photography

The Afong Studio in Hong Kong stood out as a guiding light for emerging photographers. Among its notable protégés were Emil Rusfeldt and D.K. Griffith, who began their illustrious careers under Lai Afong’s expert guidance. Griffith, in 1875, recognized Afong’s prowess by equating his impact with European art’s stalwarts, praising him as the leading figure among Chinese photographers in Hong Kong. Adding to the accolades, John Thomson, the celebrated Scottish photographer in China, lauded Lai Afong’s impeccable artistry in his book, The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China, and China, highlighting the master’s keen eye for artistic composition.

Two officials by Lai Afong c1880s
Two officials by Lai Afong c1880s, source

Afong’s genius wasn’t just recognized by his Chinese peers but also resonated deeply with international contemporaries. His work uniquely juxtaposed the technical finesse and aesthetic beauty inspired by traditional Chinese art form, guóhuà. Lai Afong’s penchant for panoramic shots set him on the same pedestal as 19th-century landscape photography icons like America’s Carleton Watkins and France’s Gustave Le Gray. His distinctive lens offered an expansive and multifaceted view of the late Qing Dynasty China, unparalleled by any other photographer of the era.

China, Opium smokers by Lai Afong, c1880
China, Opium smokers by Lai Afong, c1880, source

Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art spotlighted this master in February 2020 with the exhibition titled Lai Fong (Ca. 1839-1890): Photographer of China. Drawing from the renowned Stephan Loewentheil China Photography Collection, this exhibition provided an evocative glimpse into China’s soul during the 19th century. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic truncating its duration, the exhibition received commendations from global media giants, including China’s People’s Daily and Fine Books and Collections. The exhibitions celebrated Afong’s exceptional talent in portraying China’s growth and the dynamic interplay of its cities and populace during the Qing Dynasty.

Canton. Chinese Grave. No. 240’, circa 1880s
Canton. Chinese Grave. No. 240’, circa 1880s, source

Afong’s photographs serve as time capsules, offering an invaluable chance to witness pre-twentieth-century China through a native artist’s lens. These treasures, once shadowed by obscurity post his death, have now been rediscovered, thanks in part to archives like the Stephan Loewentheil China Photography Collection. Renowned institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the National Galleries of Scotland proudly feature Lai Afong’s masterpieces in their permanent collections.

Lai Afong, view of Macau, 1870s-1890s
Lai Afong, view of Macau, 1870s-1890s, source

However, unearthing authentic pieces of 19th-century Chinese photography remains a Herculean task. Scattered relics, often misrecorded or miscataloged, make accurate identification elusive. As early photographers either migrated or closed shop, their studios’ remnants, including glass plate negatives, were either auctioned or procured by contemporaries, leading to significant overlaps in collections. Consequently, photographic albums from this era are mosaics of multiple photographers’ works, rendering identification challenging.

Chinese Hairdresser by Lai Afong c1870s (cropped)
Chinese Hairdresser by Lai Afong c1870s (cropped), source

Despite Afong’s towering stature, the ambiguity around his authentic works persists. The blurred lines between his original pieces and those acquired from other acclaimed foreign photographers, such as Milton Miller and John Thomson, complicate the narrative. For instance, the album People and Views of China, attributed to Afong, boasts contributions from various artists, showcasing the era’s collaborative spirit. Over time, as Afong embarked on photographic voyages, he curated his collections, phasing out foreign contributions in favor of his personal captures. Post-1880, albums from the Afong Studio predominantly featured his exclusive works, solidifying his legacy as an unparalleled photographic maestro.

Temple of Five Hundred Genii 317 by Lai Afong c1880s
Temple of Five Hundred Genii 317 by Lai Afong c1880s, source
Lai-Afong, Female Musicians and Singers of Foo-Chow
Lai-Afong, Female Musicians and Singers of Foo-Chow, source
Lai Afong, Canton commercial street view, c1880
Lai Afong, Canton commercial street view, c1880, source
Lai Afong, Chinese Mandarins, Canton
Lai Afong, Chinese Mandarins, Canton, source

Topics: Lai Afong photography contributions, Afong Studio’s impact on Chinese art, 19th-century Hong Kong photography, Qing Dynasty visual chronicles, blending photography and guóhuà

Featured image: Sharing a Meal, wikimedia

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