But where is its history?
Uncovering Lost China is one of the things we’ve been working on this year at Levenger Press. The result is the largest book we’ve ever published, The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China, 1873, by John Thomson.
Mim Harrison, our editor of Levenger Press, tells you why we felt his photographic history was so important now. Then I have a question for you…
—SteveIf you know Levenger Press, you know that often our books look back with fresh forewords. Our collection of E. B. White’s essays was one such look back, to White’s uncanny observations 50 years ago of the future. They were so appropriate for today that we asked the futurist Paul Saffo to write the new foreword. For The Inmost Shrine, we asked Michael Meyer, a young and current chronicler of Chinese culture, to write the foreword to this old text. Michael is the author of The Last Days of Beijing, and has borne witness as the new China layered itself over the old.
This was the first time Levenger Press would look back through photographs rather than words, and we felt it was the right time to do so. This was the year, after all, that Kodachrome officially faded from the picture, eclipsed by the wonders of digital photography. We would be showcasing an even older, lost-to-history form of photography with Thomson’s black and white images.
Appropriately enough, we landed at the jewel-like museum that now preserves the legacy of the founder of Kodak, the George Eastman House.
A Scotsman looks into a soul
George Eastman was a collector of rare books, and the volumes containing John Thomson’s photographs of China are among them. Thomson was a Scottish explorer and an adventurer, and he dared to steal the souls of his subjects. That’s how many of the Chinese viewed his bizarre activity with his ungodly-looking equipment. And yet they let him take their picture anyway.
Perhaps they knew that in stealing their souls, he was giving them their history.
Here is the schoolboy with his long queue and the musicians with their mysterious instruments, there is the mendicant priest and the Buddhist abbot. We see what a lady uses to make up her face, the way gunpowder tea is rolled (by feet) and how silk is reeled (in great secrecy).
Thomson did something else remarkable for his time: he created a work of photojournalism. A short essay accompanies each picture, and it’s as much through Thomson’s words as the images that this past comes to life. Otherwise, we would have no way of knowing that the men bent intently over baskets of coins in one photograph are not counting the coins but schroffing them—testing them to see if they’re counterfeit.
Reflection of a time and place
The Inmost Shrine is an enhanced facsimile of George Eastman’s original book. The Eastman House painstakingly re-created it through digital remastering. Thus new technology was applied to old, and yielded a most happy result. We were able to enlarge some of Thomson’s photographs for the first time in print, revealing hidden detail.
Thomson was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a part of the Empire era. His viewpoint reflects his time and place in the world. We may not always agree with his perspective, but this, too, is part of the history.
For me the secret beauty of The Inmost Shrine lies beyond its intimate photography and gold trim and red and gold binding. This is not history that’s been rewritten; it’s history as it was becoming so, uncensored and utterly forthright. It is a book that gives history back its soul.
And now to you, dear reader. Are there books you treasure because of the way they present history? I’d love to know what they are. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you’ll connect to Comments).—Mim