Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne
May – September 2014
From merchant districts distorted by long exposure, tourists gleefully posing by decapitated pirates, portraits of influential indigenous people and a sepia Taj Mahal: there is something innately unsettling about early photography.
The “From Istanbul to Yokohama” exhibition marked the centenary of the Cologne Museum of East Asian Art. Featuring photographs amassed by founders Adolf and Frieda Fischer during their travels to the Orient, it is an incredible insight into the diffusion of heavy cameras and dark rooms from the West. The collection of nearly 350 pieces, including artwork encountered along the way, reconstructs the steamboat routes from Europe to Japan following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
I am completely unfamiliar with historical photography exhibitions, and so will not pretend that my initial reaction was not of being underwhelmed. In a collection like this, you won’t find the grandeur and aestheticism of huge, elaborate digital prints pervasive to modern photography galleries. I was not prepared for the modesty and intricacy of this collection, which featured some pictures as tiny as passport photographs, and it was a nice surprise.
It is precisely this modesty that draws you in. It is incredible to be confronted by something so small in size, but which carries such concentrated value, meaning and narrative. If anything, the size, occasional tears and bad quality actually intensify the experience. Leaning into a postcard showing a Chinese man cutting his hair, one has to make a conscious effort to remember this novelty memento has travelled in backpacks and wallets and albums for almost 150 years.
It is especially eerie, for want of a better word, when you are confronted by works dated by the photographer’s hand: 19/01/09 doesn’t feel so far away until you realise it’s 1909. It is difficult to explain, but this collection is very moving. Early photography was experimental in its own right. That which people chose to capture is infinitely interesting when one considers the time, resources and sheer effort involved—something foreign to us. There will always be something invaluable in portraits of people long dead, villages long destroyed, ways of life long forgotten.