Early photographs of China are important because they were taken from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, during the last few years of Qing dynasty, the period before social, political and economic changes would sweepingly transform the country from one that seemed inextricable from its traditions to one that would embrace industrialization like the rest of the world did.
Photography made its way to China in the 1840s through Western practitioners of the art. Thanks to the 19th-century photographs of China taken by such masters as Felice Beato, John Thomson, Thomas Child, and William Saunders, as well as locals who would eventually take up and excel in the craft, such as Lai Fong, Pun Lun and Tung Hing, China as it had been for thousands of years is immortalized in photography.
The rare works of the aforementioned photographers, taken from the New York-based Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection, are currently on exhibit at the PRPH Books in New York City. The show, which will run until March 20 as part of the 2017 Asia Week New York, is presented by the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop, which describes the Stephan Loewentheil assemblage of China photos as “unrivaled” and the “most valuable” such collection.