April 6, 2023

S3-E8 - Early Photos of Taiwan - by John Thomson - 1871

S3-E8 - Early Photos of Taiwan - by John Thomson - 1871

Some of the earliest photos we have of Taiwan were taken by a British photographer who visited the southwest of the island in 1871. Taking pics back then was far from “point and shoot.” It was “get inside portable darkroom, grab delicate glass plate, cover with chemical A, then B, then C, then expose the plate to light, then more...” and on and on. We owe John Thomson a debt of gratitude for his short but significant expedition to “photograph wild Formosa!” In particular, his images of the “Pingpu” (Plains) Indigenous peoples of the Tainan and Kaohsiung hinterlands captured the twilight of their old ways.

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Cover images: British photographer John Thomson (left), Indigenous Taiwanese hunters with their "tugou" hunting dog (middle), and right: local kids play along the banks of the Laonong River(荖濃溪), a tributary of the Gaoping River. The Laonong River flows through Kaohsiung City for 136 kilometers. All pics by John Thomson and are in the public domain. 

Below: The bamboo rafts Thomson mentions in his journal. To get to many shores in southern Taiwan, people and cargo needed to be transferred to these small vessels as many harbors back then were too shallow for ships. 

Below: Two pics by Thomson of the wild interior of southwest Taiwan. Color photography arrived in 1890s, too late for Thomson's trip to Taiwan, but he did complain that the tedious photography process he used didn't allow for clearer black and white images of the "stunning" views. If you're interested in wet plate collodion photography, click HERE.

Below: Thomson's pic of Takao harbor in 1871. 

Below: Hunters with their hunting dog, by John Thomson (1871)

For many, many more great pictures by Thomson, visit HERE and HERE.

Katy Hui-wen Hung wrote an excellent article for the Taipei Times about the “John Thomson Heritage Walk,” a tour developed by You Yung-fu (游永福), author of the recently-published Chinese language book John Thomson Formosa (尋找湯姆生:1871臺灣文化遺產大發現).

Special thanks to the National Center of Photography and Images (at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts) for the present of the book accompanying their 2021 exhibition: Hold the Mirror up to His Gaze: the Early History of Photography in Taiwan (1869-1949).

This episode drew heavily on John Thomson’s 1875 travelogue, The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China; or, Ten years' travels, adventures and residence abroad.