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Levenger Press - The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China - 1873
When the Scottish explorer John Thomson took his bulky camera equipment into China in the late 1860s, he was traversing uncharted territory. Few Chinese had ever encountered either a Westerner or a camera, and were suspicious of both: cameras stole the soul. And yet Thomson was able to photograph a China unseen by the rest of the world before then, and one that even modern, well-traveled explorers cannot easily penetrate. For all that today’s digital cameras bring to the moment, Thomson’s soul-rattling machine captured a part of history that might otherwise have been lost.

“The old woman in the photograph is the grandmother living with her son’s family in the boat; she still works cheerfully at the oar to help the domestic earnings; and nurses, all the while, one of the grandchildren. Probably this is the eldest son, the pride of the family, and the hope of her old age. The babe is carried in a cloth slung over the shoulders, after the manner of the Chinese race, and he presses his face against the back of his bearer during his hours of sleep.” Levenger Press - The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China - 1873

“Black teas, after being partially dried in the sun, and slightly fired, are rolled either by the palm of the hand on a flat tray, or by the foot in a hempen bag. They are scorched in iron pans over a slow charcoal fire, and after this spread out on bamboo trays, that the broken stems and refuse leaves may be picked out. The teas are then separated by passing them through sieves, so as to form different sizes and qualities of tea.”

“Physic Street, or more correctly, Tsiang-Lan-Kiai (our Market Street), as the Chinese term it,—is one of the finest streets in Canton. The narrowness of the streets is intended to exclude the burning sun, and this object is assisted by covering the open space between the roofs with bamboo basketwork. To each trade its special locality or street has been assigned. Here we find none of the display, none of those desperate efforts to secure the lion’s share of custom, which competition has fostered in European towns.” Levenger Press - The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China - 1873

“The ladies of China are skilled in the use of cosmetics; but their ways are not as our ways. No well regulated Chinese beauty would be guilty of washing her face; it must be polished with a hot damp cloth; when this process is over, the surface is ready to receive its coating of finely prepared white powder, after which the smooth whitened skin is tinted with carmine. The carmine is sold in small books, each page of which is covered with a coating of the dye.” Levenger Press - The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China - 1873

Images and text by John Thomson, 1873. Excerpted from The Inmost Shrine, published in 2009 by Levenger Press.
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