Contemporary Chinese photography has received increasing attention both within China and beyond; however, the origin of photography in China is not fully understood. Brush & Shutter: Early Photography in China takes its name from the way that the medium of photography was learned and readily adapted by Chinese export painters, who grafted this new technology onto traditional conventions. Representing the work of both Chinese and Western artists, the photographs in this exhibition range from a portrait of a Chinese family taken in Shanghai in 1859 to unique glass slides of revolutionary soldiers in Shanxi province in 1911.
Before the invention of photography in 1839, images of China for export were painted in oil and gouache as well as on popular blue-and-white porcelain. Illustrating a limited repertoire of subjects—tea gardens, pagodas, and fanciful rural scenes—a stereotype of China emerged that was often repeated by photographers, who found a ready market among Western buyers. In this regard, photographers were following a tradition in the West—which blossomed in a European craze for chinoiserie during the 17th and 18th centuries—of reproducing stereotypical images about China on porcelain, wallpaper, furniture, and tapestries; however, photography in China also broke from that tradition of reproduction by capturing images that surprised viewers.