Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Lai Afong

Lai Afong was a Chinese photographer who established Afong Studio, one of the early photographic studios in Hong Kong. Lai Afong was born in Gaoming, Guangdong and arrived in Hong Kong in the 1850s as a refugee of the Taiping Rebellion.

 It is not known how he learned the wet-plate collodion process, but, it is said that by as early as 1859 had learned the art of photography. Between 1865 and 1867, Lai Afong worked at the Hong Kong studio of Portuguese photographer José Joaquim Alves de Silvieria and by 1870, the earliest known announcement of the Afong Studio was printed as an advertisement in the Hong Kong Daily Press.

His studio was active from 1859 to around the 1940s. Lai Afong’s subject matters ranged from portraits and social life pictures to cityscapes and landscapes. Little is known about his life, although many of his images survive today as testament to his extraordinary talent.After Lai Afong’s death, the business was taken over by his son in the 1890s.

Subject matters ranged from portraits and social life pictures to cityscapes and landscapes. Lai Afong traveled through the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, Hebei, Songjiang (today Shanghai), and Hong Kong, creating photographs. His collection of views included photographs of masterpieces of Chinese architecture such as sites within the Summer Palace and the Fragrant Hills Pagoda in Beijing, the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees in Guangzhou, and numerous others, as well as magnificent panoramas of such locations as Victoria harbor and Gulangyu island.

As Lai Afong’s reputation grew, both Chinese and foreign clientele flocked to his studio for portrait sessions, including some of China’s most important people such as Qing dynasty official Li Hongzhang. According to the verso of many of his Carte de visite works, he was photographer to Governor of Hong Kong Sir Arthur Kennedy KCB and Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia.

Lai’s work and person were praised by John Thomson, a Scottish photographer working in China at the time, in Thomson’s book The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China, and China. Lai’s experience totally originated into the Western community, but it still reveals the same sensibility of the literati painting which embodied both learned references to the styles of ancient masters and the inner spirit of the artist.

Temple of the Six Banyan Trees
Temple of the Six Banyan Trees by Lai Afong
Zhan Shichai
Zhan Shichai by Lai Afong

Lai Afong was the most successful of his generation of Chinese photographers in appealing to both a Chinese and foreign cosmopolitan clientele. He advertised in English-language newspapers – offering a “Larger, and more complete collection of Views than any other Establishment in the Empire of China”. Afong Studio photographs were sold to both Chinese patrons – both those local to Hong Kong and those visiting from other parts of China – and foreign visitors to China.

The Afong Studio became a destination and training ground for foreign photographers in the region, and photographers such as Emil Rusfeldt and D.K. Griffith began their careers under the tutelage of Lai Afong.

Lai Afong seems to have been the only Chinese photographer of his generation to be embraced by his foreign contemporaries. However, his work is distinct among them, as many of Lai Afong’s photographic compositions show the technical and aesthetic influence of traditional Chinese painting, known as guóhuà.

Additionally, Lai Afong favoured the panorama more than any other photographer working in China in the 19th century, earning his work a place among the giants of 19th century landscape photography such as Carleton Watkins in America and Gustave Le Gray in France. No other nineteenth-century Chinese photographer offered as extensive and diverse a view of late Qing Dynasty China.

Sacred Heart Cathedral Guangzhou, c1880
Sacred Heart Cathedral Guangzhou, c1880 by Lai Afong

Five Stories Pagoda Guangzhou, c1880
Five Stories Pagoda Guangzhou, c1880 by Lai Afong

In February 2020, the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University presented Lai Fong (Ca. 1839-1890): Photographer of China, the first museum exhibition dedicated to Lai Fong. The majority of the photographs exhibited were on loan from Stephan Loewentheil China Photography Collection, one of the world’s foremost collections of Early Chinese Photography.

As the most successful Chinese photographer of his time period, Lai Afong’s photographs offer a rare opportunity to view China and its people through the eyes of a Chinese artist, before the transformations of the twentieth century would change the country forever. After languishing in near obscurity for decades after his death, the presence of his work in archives such as the Stephan Loewentheil China Photography Collection has helped to expose Lai Afong to a wider contemporary audience. Lai Afong’s photographs are currently held in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the National Galleries of Scotland, and several other prominent museum collections.

Junks in Guangzhou
Junks in Guangzhou by Lai Afong

Chinese Meal by Lai Afong, c1880
Meal by Lai Afong, c1880 by Lai Afong

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