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Imperial Exposure: Early Photography and Royal Portraits across Asia

Freer Gallery of Art
Meyer Auditorium
Monday, December 5–Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Session I: Self-creation and Personal Agency

Yi Gu, University of Toronto
Prince Chun through the Lens: Negotiating Photographic Medium in Royal Image
Prince Chun Yihuan (1840–1891) belonged to the innermost circle of the Manchu imperial clan. He was the seventh son of the Daoguang Emperor (1782–1850), brother-in-law of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908), father of the Guangxu Emperor (1871–1908), and grandfather of Puyi, the Xuantong Emperor (1906–1967). Encumbered by his complicated relationship with the Empress Dowager, whose histrionic favoritism toward him was matched only by her incurable distrust, Prince Chun has often been portrayed in historical writings as an overcautious figure, restrained from bold action or self-expression. Yet he avidly embraced photography, collecting, exchanging, organizing, and staging photographic portraits. This paper explores how Prince Chun’s engagement with photography challenges the passive role history has assigned him. It also more broadly examines how royal patrons adopted photographic portraiture to mediate delicate political relations and to construct self-identities as a response to mounting demands for modernity.

Ying-chen Peng, University of California, Los Angeles
Lingering between Tradition and Innovation: Photographic Portraits of Empress Dowager Cixi

As the de facto ruler of the Qing dynasty (1636–1912) during its last five decades, Empress Dowager Cixi witnessed the modernization of how sovereignty was represented in China. To adapt to international diplomatic conventions, in the late 1890s Cixi began to integrate Western depictions of royalty with traditional Chinese expressions of power. In this process, the newly introduced medium of photography played a crucial role. Cixi commissioned many photographic portraits from around 1903 to 1904. She bestowed some of them to foreign rulers and, on occasion, to her own high officials.

This paper argues that beyond their practical functions, Cixi’s photographic portraits are images situated between convention and innovation, and that they must be given a new context. She commissioned these works within the tradition of Chinese imperial portraiture, a genre whose images were rarely displayed to the general public—yet she used them to create a public persona. By examining her photographic portraits and earlier Chinese imperial portraits, Peng reconstructs the process of such image-making and pinpoints the subtle lines between Cixi’s public and private images.

Ali Behdad, University of California, Los Angeles
Portrait Photographs: Constructions of Masculinity; Representations of Power
The portrait, as John Tagg reminds us, is “both the description of an individual and the inscription of social identity,” as well as “a commodity, a luxury, an adornment, ownership of which itself confers status” (The Burden of Representation, 37). This paper considers the plural functions of royal portrait photography in Iran during the Qajar dynasty: as a means of self-expression, as an inscription of royal power, and as a status symbol. It focuses on a series of images of Nasir al-Din Shah (1831–1896). Whether they were self-portraits or taken by a professional, these photographs conveyed the opulence, grandeur, and patriarchal nature of Qajar monarchical power. Such portraits, often depicting the shah in his royal gown and with a stern expression suggestive of his despotic authority, were given to local officials and various dignitaries as royal gifts and as signifiers of status.

Session II: Personal Manifestations of Nationhood

Luke Gartlan, University of St. Andrews
The Reverent and the Everyday: Presenting Imperial Photographic Portraits in Meiji Japan
This paper examines the display and circulation of the imperial photographic portraits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Haruko. Throughout the late nineteenth century, public policy and governance of these official photographic portraits shifted between strict censorship of their commercial sale and widespread distribution and public display. Regular press reports of the period emphasized the portraits’ official display and, in turn, the periodic police crackdowns on their unsanctioned distribution. The imperial photographs served many roles, including as public spectacles in government buildings, parks, and other sanctioned spaces; as private icons of devotion; as commodities of clandestine trade; as venerated icons in schools; and as objects of diplomatic exchange. Gartlan argues that these modes of display and distribution were critical to imperial portraiture’s political significance. Along with the emperor’s public appearances, the imperial photographs served to galvanize a range of social spaces for the education of his subjects—vital to the formation of the modern nation-state.

Hyung Il Pai, University of California, Santa Barbara
Romancing the Ruins of Imperial Antiquity: Travel Myths, Memories, and the Marketing of Heritage
Destinations in Korea
Photographs of decaying ruins have captured the imagination of explorers, artists, writers, and travelers for more than two centuries. This study introduces the earliest body of travel photography depicting Korea’s most famous landmarks, featured in archaeological reports, museum catalogues, photo albums, postcards, posters, and travel guides. Regardless of the medium, archaeologists, art historians, politicians, and commercial photographers have focused on promoting the “picturesque” beauty of the oldest royal tombs, Buddhist art, palaces, shrines, fortresses, and temples. By analyzing a number of the most widely circulated stock images of landscaped monuments—which have served as favorite backdrops for framing portraits of royal family members, visiting dignitaries, courtesans, peasants, and children—this paper demonstrates how such highly exoticized, romanticized, and anachronistic visions of “authentic” Korea continue to impact self-representations of the nation and its people. It demonstrates how images of royal patronage, native types, and celebrities posed among the ruins of vanquished “Other” have served not only as tools of political legitimization, diplomacy, education, and assimilation, but also as a powerful marketing strategy for the tourist industry to advertise “must-see” destinations to a world audience.

Roberta Wue, University of California, Irvine
The Mandarin at Home and Abroad: Picturing Li Hongzhang (1823–1901)
The limited public representation of rulers and political figures in imperial China began to change only at the very end of the dynastic period. Today, it raises the intriguing question of how and why public figures are represented in the modern era. The celebrated late Qing photographs of Cixi (1835–1908), fantastical and self-directed, acknowledge the possibilities of new technologies and new expectations. These quasi-private portraits of the Empress Dowager operated in interesting contrast to contemporary images generated in the modern media of Li Hongzhang, the eminent general, statesman, diplomat, pragmatist, and reformer. Li’s status as a prominent and controversial Chinese public figure is pictorially encountered in a surprisingly wide range of illustrations, prints, caricatures, and photographs, published in books, journals, and newspapers at home and abroad. The diversity of these images and the ways in which he was depicted reflect the spectrum of viewpoints that could either castigate or celebrate Li as a representative of China and the Chinese. Among them are a number of photographic portraits, some made directly under Li’s aegis, which suggest he crafted a sober, masculine public image for use as diplomatic gifts and as event markers. These pictures address the possibilities and uses of late Qing representations of the Chinese public figure.

Session III: Photographs and other media

John Clark, University of Sydney
Presenting the Self: Pictorial and Photographic Discourses in Nineteenth-century Dutch Indies, Siam, and Japan
In nineteenth-century Asia, photographic portraits did not exist as a separate visual discourse from portraiture. They frequently were introduced as part of a mastery of new kinds of representation, which penetrated aristocratic society first but soon spread to the rich and often the professional middle classes. Photographic portraits were not just indexical links to the subject but also images that presented the sitter in a symbolic space, often governed by both political intentions and institutional learning about new representational modes.

How did portraiture—created in oil and sometimes in modified forms of pre-modern customary media—affect the practice and subjects of photographic representation? How was it used by the state to reformulate and solidify images of the symbolic ruler in different contexts? What types of portrait were suitable to replicate for the elites and then for the general population in new educational systems? Did these images change when they were mass-produced in new forms of mass media? This paper approaches these questions via comparative analysis of the work of artists, photographers, and printmakers in the Dutch Indies (later Indonesia), Siam (later Thailand), and Japan.

Deepali Dewan, Royal Ontario Museum, University of Toronto
Embellished Reality: Paint and Photography in Studio Portraiture from India
Indian painted photographs are a unique aspect of photographic history and a distinctive genre of Indian visual culture. Dominated by portraiture, Indian painted photographs were not an attempt to enhance realism through the application of color. Rather, painting over the photograph was designed to enhance the status of the sitter and the affective power of the resulting image. This paper examines the production and use of Indian painted photographs. It also considers the insight they offer into the function of “realism” in South Asian art and the ontological status of the photograph in the Indian context.

Mary Roberts, University of Sydney
Ottoman Statecraft and the “Pencil of Nature”: Portrait Photography and Drawing at the Court of Sultan
The visual arts played a central role in Ottoman statecraft during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz (1861–76), as the empire’s image was refashioned in tune with modernizing reform. Portraiture and history painting were used to create a modern image of the Ottoman leader, whose legitimacy premised on new historicization of the “glory days” of the empire. Abdülaziz was the first Ottoman sultan to harness photography to broadly disseminate his image. A painter himself, Abdülaziz was keenly aware of the potential uses of visual arts in the arena of international politics.

A folio of sixty-seven of the sultan’s sketches were presented to his court artist, the Polish painter Stanislaw Chlebowski, as working drawings for Ottoman battle paintings the sultan commissioned in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Chlebowski took the sketches back to Europe when he left Istanbul in 1876. They later were published alongside the sultan’s portrait in a series of journal articles in Poland (1909), London (1913), and Istanbul (1914). This paper investigates both the contemporary and posthumous legacies of the sketches and photographic portraits by examining the local and international impact of their joint circulation. The relationship between these two visual media provides unique insights into the function of Ottoman royal photographic portraiture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both within the empire and abroad.

Session IV: Court and Religion

Maki Fukuoka, University of Michigan
Pictorializing the Emperor
One of the most prominent icons of modern Japan, the photographic portrait of the Meiji Emperor (goshin’ei) is intimately intertwined with the process of creating a national image during the Meiji Period. Indeed, prominent scholars of photography, such as Tagi Koji, Iizawa Kotaro, and Kinoshita Naoyuki, have explored this topic as a significant aspect of photographic history in Japan. The ceremonies mandated by the state for viewing goshin’ei and the calculated pattern of its distribution have also lead historians to situate the image within visual, colonial, and cultural contexts.

This paper examines the period before 1890, when the goshin’ei was first distributed nationally to governmental institutions. It compares the portrait to another cultural object known as “jingu taima,” a Shinto talisman distributed by the Meiji government that bore the name of the inner sanctum and red seal of the Ise Shrine. The period of experimentation with Shinto talismans curiously overlaps with the pivotal time that iconography of the Meiji Emperor was first established and distributed. Fukuoka articulates the tensions between mass-produced paper talismans and the photographically reproduced goshin’ei, as well as between the textual and pictorial and between religious and state sanctions.

Yuhang Li, Yale University
Mimicking Guanyin through the Lens: Cixi/Guanyin Photographs
The photographs of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) dressed up as Guanyin, the most popular female deity, have received considerable attention from scholars of Chinese cultural history in recent years. Scholars have begun to view these photographs as either an instrumental means in Cixi’s political campaign or as an example of the way she performs gender roles. In particular, some have stated that Cixi utilized Guanyin’s male and female forms to express her own inner masculinity or femininity. These approaches all have shed light on the complexity of Cixi’s Guanyin photographs; however, they have failed to scrutinize them in the context of Cixi’s general religious practice of the cult of Guanyin. This paper demonstrates that Cixi’s Guanyin photographs were a technique she adopted to extend and reframe her longtime practice of dressing up as the deity. Li situates Cixi’s practice in the larger historical context of imperial rulers embodying religious icons, and then points out the religious and historical substance of Cixi’s particular way of envisioning herself as a deity.

Claire Roberts, Australian National University
Chinese Imperial Portrait Photography: Reconciling Heaven and Earth
Chinese imperial portraits—representations of “heaven-endowed” physiognomy—were primarily created for ritual and commemorative purposes. Bound up with ideas related to cosmic power, they also embody the contradiction of the mortal quest for eternal life. How did the introduction of photography to China affect imperial portraiture? This paper examines photographs of Prince Chun Yihuan and the Empress Dowager Cixi, in particular those taken by Chinese photographers to commemorate birthdays. Roberts considers these images within the context of earlier Chinese imperial portraits and a legacy of curiosity with regard to representation and artistic expression.

Session V: Then and Now

Holly Edwards, Williams College
Timely Portraits: Afghan Women Then and Now
This paper spotlights two Afghan women who wielded significant transnational power by means of their widely disseminated portraits. The first is Queen Soraya. Collaborating in the 1920s with King Amanullah, she worked to alter the very terms of Afghan visual culture, particularly with regard to dress codes, gender roles, and new technologies like photography. Their modernizing campaign culminated in an unprecedented diplomatic tour, during which Soraya willingly posed unveiled for press photographers abroad. Portraits of her, conforming to those of socialites and debutantes, were widely disseminated via the Illustrated London News, generating British enthusiasm for her looks, her fashion sense, and her cosmopolitan poise. Her image worked to advance Afghan credibility in Europe even as it contributed to political instability at home.

Decades later, Sharbat Gula (commonly known as “the Afghan Girl”) gained similar celebrity, albeit without exercising any ambition or personal agency towards that end. Her green-eyed visage appeared on the cover of National Geographic (1985) just as American trendsetters were beginning to applaud “ethnic” appeal among high-fashion models. Serendipitously fashion-forward, Sharbat Gula captivated humanitarian fundraisers, becoming the poster child for Afghan refugees fleeing from civil war. This paper tracks these two Afghan women through cascading changes in local and global visual cultures, exploring powerful and fraught relationships between portraiture and visibility along the way.

Christine Kim, Georgetown University
Portraying Korea’s Colonial Monarchy:Images of Assimilation and Modernity
This paper examines the uses of photographs depicting the Korean royal family during the period of Japanese colonial rule (1910–45). Although annexation brought an end to Korea’s Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910), Japan’s imperial project continued to utilize the symbolic cachet of the Korean throne. This colonization technique employed official and informal photographic portraits of members of the Korean royal household, depicting them as privileged subjects of the empire. These images, mass-produced and disseminated through a wide range of print media, offered glimpses of cosmopolitan glamour that packaged notions of assimilation and colonial modernity.

During the 1920s, an intense focus on “the last crown prince,” Prince Yŏng (1897–1964), promoted several themes: his professional life as an officer in the Japanese imperial army; his marriage to a scion of Japanese aristocracy and their subsequent family life; and his modern lifestyle, exemplified by new modes of consumption, recreation, and leisure—through which the colonial administration sought to reshape Koreans’ identity. In the subsequent decades, as Koreans were increasingly drawn into the Pacific War, a new theme of imperial loyalty and cultural assimilation was emphasized. Photographic images thus not only provide a way of understanding Korea’s colonial experience in the early twentieth century, but also illustrate a process in which colonial machinations gradually eroded the nationalist foundations of the throne.

Maurizio Peleggi, National University of Singapore
From Image to Icon: The Aesthetics and Politics of Thai Royal Portraiture
Ubiquitous display of the royals’ portraits is characteristic of public space in Thailand, one of the world’s few remaining monarchies, and mistreatment of these images notoriously can incur the charge of lèse majesté. Yet, because representing the royal self was considered taboo, the royal portraiture tradition was not prevalent in Thai visual culture until the mid-nineteenth century. At that time, domestic and international dissemination of the royal image through studio portraits, effigy on coins and banknotes, picture postcards, and book illustrations epitomized the palace’s modernizing drive. Starting with King Mongkut (r. 1851–68) and especially his successor, King Chulalongkorn (1868–1910), photographic portraits of Thai monarchs reveal their awareness of the importance of the ruler’s image in Western semiotics of power.

Thai royal portraiture thus underwent a peculiar change in status between the 1860s and 1960s. Increasing public familiarity with the sovereign’s image initially had a demotic effect: By the 1920s the Thai monarch was being caricatured in newspapers. This trend was reversed during the long reign of the incumbent monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej (r. 1946–), which brought about the resacralization of the royal body and the iconization of portraits. This paper examines the photographic portraits of nineteenth-century Thai monarchs, and considers how they relate—formally, aesthetically, and ideologically—to the portraits that today hang on the walls of public premises and private homes alike.

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