Rock's Photography of the Chinese-Tibetan Borderlands
|BOOK EXHIBITION||PARTNERS||FILM||JOSEPH ROCK LINKS|
Photos courtesy © Image Collection of the National Geographic Society
Joseph Francis Rock (1884-1962) was one of the last classic explorers and plant hunters of the 20th century, arriving in western China in 1922 and spending most of the next twenty-seven years of his life there. He collected plants, hunted birds, took photographs and shot film, and explored the mountainous regions of western China for various prestigious American institutions including the US Department of Agriculture, the National Geographic Society and Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum.
Rock took many extraordinary photographs, which will form the heart of this rich exhibition. He documented among other things medieval walled cities, yak caravans, nomads and pilgrims, incarnate lamas, oracles, shamans, village priests and Dongba rituals and was even allowed to photograph the interiors of several of the great Tibetan lamaseries, including Labrang, Ragya and Kumbum. His most remarkable photographs are his autochromes of several of the ruling families of the region and elaborate Buddhist rituals with their masked and costumed participants. His photographs of the Chinese-Tibetan borderlands and the principalities of Yongning, Muli and Choni, as well as the nomadic tribes and peasants of the region, are unique documents of several local cultures which since the Cultural Revolution have either ceased to exist or have undergone fundamental changes.
As an explorer in China in the 1920s, Rock lived in wild and troubled provinces in a chaotic nation. He witnessed civil wars, tribal wars, provincial wars, a world war, and a national revolution, not to mention the random savagery of bandits who plundered the Chinese countryside. Having established himself in a village near Lijiang in south-western Yunnan, Rock set out to explore the Chinese-Tibetan borderlands, areas little known to the Western world.
Rock was a complicated man, proud, self-made, extraordinary, imperfect, and a loner. Setting out for years at a time, he would travel like royalty. His baggage included tents, a folding bed, a table and chairs, table linen and china, a gramophone to play his beloved opera on and even a portable rubber bathtub. The caravan would often include up to 26 mules and 17 men, escorted by 190 soldiers with rifles to ward off bandits who preyed on travellers in China’s backcountry in the 1920s. He himself would head the caravan travelling on horseback,except when visiting a local ruler when he would be carried in sedan chair; when the four porters put it down the figure who alighted would be wearing a white shirt, tie and jacket, and the many astonished peasants would believe him to be a foreign prince. “You’ve got to make people believe you’re someone of importance if you want to live in these wilds,” he once said.
The exhibit consists of 76 photographs from Joseph Rock’s exploring years in China and Tibet from when he arrived in Lijiang in 1922 to the end of his last expedition in 1930. During this time Rock undertook three extensive expeditions along the Chinese-Tibetan borderlands and into north-eastern Tibet. His first expedition was for the National Geographic Society between 1923 and 1924 which took him to Yongning and the Kingdom of Muli where he encountered and befriended the Tsungkuan (Governor) of Yongning and the King of Muli, Chote Chaba, both of whom he would visit more than once. Rock’s second expedition between 1924 and 1927 for Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum was a plant hunting expedition, the seeds of which were sent to herbariums the world over. On this expedition he explored the Amnye Machen mountain range, travelled into northeast Tibet as far as Lake Koko Nor and had a few close shaves with bandits. He also got to know Prince Yang of Choni, who allowed him to photograph the monastery and the religious festivals of the monks. Some of Rock’s finest photographs, black and white and autochrome, come from this period. For his third expedition between 1928 and 1930, again for the National Geographic Society, Rock explored the Konka Risumgongba and Minya Konka mountain ranges.
The two expeditions for the National Geographic Society both started from Rock’s home base, the village of Nguluko just outside Lijiang, and partially covered identical territory. Rock’s expedition between 1924 and 1927 for the Arnold Arboretum started from Kunming, the provincial capital of the province Yunnan a little further to the east and traversed areas new to him. A map showing Rock’s actual routes will introduce the viewer to the exhibition but the three expeditions themselves will be fused into one and divided into five sections. The purpose of this is to avoid photographically covering ground which has already been covered and yet at the same time allow the viewer to partake of all the expeditions. The exhibition will be accompanied by a video installation (requiring a DVD player and a beamer) of two river crossings and a Buddhist ceremony filmed by Rock. The dramatic river crossings show plainly the difficulties Rock faced as he traversed the eastern Himalayan foothills which are crisscrossed by the Yalong, Mekong and Yangtze. The Buddhist ceremony was filmed at Yongning monastery on the border between Yunnan and Sichuan and shows a ceremony that today can only be seen in Bhutan, the last remaining Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas.
Characteristic for Rock’s photography is its high aesthetic quality. He preferred still life photography and chose this style not only for portraits but also for ritual actions and dances. Even though the emulsions of the time required long exposures, Rock was an expert photographer and used sequence photography to document religious actions, a technique that is still used today in ethnographic documentation. Perhaps his passion for still life photography can be found in his own partiality for dressing up and posing for the camera, something he would then project on his photographic subjects.
Of the photographs that make up the exhibition, a third are autochromes, the exhibit highlights. For the National Geographic Society Rock took a leading role in the use of the new technology of autochromes, the first really practicable colour photography. An autochrome was a coloured, transparent image on glass, similar to a slide. The colour came from a layer of translucent granules of potato starch, each dyed red, blue or green to create a coloured mosaic on the glass plate. During exposure, light travelled through these granules to reach a light sensitive layer below; red granules would only allow red light to travel through, and so on. The light sensitive layer was thus selectively exposed by colour. When the autochrome was held up to the light, the coloured granules were viewed in combination with the black and white image behind to create a colour photograph. The length of exposure needed might sometimes be as long as a second, but it was developing the photographs in the field which proved to be the real challenge:
“We had to filter the water through clean absorbent cotton to eliminate impurities. Color plates are hard to handle, even in a well-equipped laboratory, and in a tent without light or running water, in a camp at 14.500 feet elevation, the difficulties were multiplied manifold. The drying of the plates was particularly difficult, owing to the cool, moist air and the myriads of midges and flies bent on resting on the emulsion, where they became entrapped. I ordered one man to keep a cardboard waving over the plates, to drive the insects off, but the air current dislodged tiny specks of humus or moss from the rhododendron trunks, often spoiling the results.”
The exhibition’s target audience is people interested in historic accounts of adventure and travel in foreign countries, and in particular China and Tibet, as well as specialists such as anthropologists, botanists, sinologists, tibetologists, geographers, historians and photographers. For those visitors then wanting to learn more about Rock or see more of his photographs, there will be merchandise available in the form of a book and a documentary film on Rock. Entitled “Exploring China – The Adventurous Travels of Botanist and Explorer Joseph Francis Rock”, the book will give the reader an overview of Rock’s life and achievements and consist of up to 300 photographs (black and white and autochrome). These will be complemented by his own writings taken from his ten articles for the National Geographic Magazine, his diaries and other sources. Rock’s adventures will be recounted in his own words and take the reader to a time and place that lives on only in memory. The main focus of the book is on Rock’s expeditions along the Chinese-Tibetan borderlands in the 1920s but it will cover his whole life from his early days in Vienna and his formative years in Hawaii, to his life in China and his return again to Hawaii where he died in 1962. The last chapter will look at Rock’s pioneering work on the beautiful and fascinating pictographic script of the Naxi.
The documentary film on Joseph Rock entitled “A King in China” has been broadcast in Europe, Canada and Australia, and was reviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald: “This is a carefully crafted and ostensibly beautiful documentary about a lonely man who finally found his paradise. Sandwiching original film footage and photographs from Rock’s expeditions to China with modern images and weaving an extensively researched chronology via narration and excerpts from Rock’s writings, the life of a man who wanted respect and accolades is powerfully revealed. That a man’s life could be so intimately depicted from such old and formal visual evidence, albeit assisted by interviews with Chinese villagers who met him and Rock’s lucid memoirs, makes this documentary all the more compelling.”
Rock’s visual material of the Chinese-Tibetan borderlands and its people is unique and remains invaluable for the history and anthropology of the region; his photographs give testimony to lost cultures and vanished kingdoms and will always be a point of reference in the understanding and research of the Chinese-Tibetan borderlands. Photographic records of the worlds Rock explored are extremely rare and this exhibition offers a perspective on a time and place that continues to command our interest and attention.