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Hedda Morrison Photographs of China, 1933-1946

Raymond Lum, Harvard-Yenching Library, Harvard University, USA
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Reviewed by:
Michael Chang
George Mason University
January 2003

This site consists of some 5,000 black-and-white photographs by the German-born photographer Hedda Hammer Morrison (1908-1991) who resided in Beijing from 1933 to 1946. The site is managed by Dr. Raymond Lum, Asian Bibliographer of the Harvard College Library and Assistant Librarian of the Harvard-Yenching Library. The collection documents lifestyles, trades, handicrafts, landscapes, commercial and religious practices, and architectural structures that may have changed or been destroyed over the course of the 20th century. By making these images available online, Dr. Lum has provided an important window into Chinese material culture and social customs during the Republican era (1911-1949).

The introductory page provides a brief overview of the project and important links to the union catalog of visual resources at Harvard known as Visual Information Access (VIA). It also offers biographical and chronological information on Morrison, bibliographies of related materials, and a content list of the 29 thematic albums in which Morrison arranged her photographs.

Of the 29 albums, 21 are arranged according to the specific location at which the photographs were taken, such as “Chung Hai,” “Nan-hai,” and “Pei-hai” (all imperial gardens in central Beijing); “Fa-hai ssu” (a Buddhist temple in suburban Beijing); and the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven (an imperial state altar in southern Beijing). The titles of the remaining albums are more thematic: “Buddhist nuns album,” “Handicrafts albums 1-3,” “Street life albums 1-2,” etc. There is one album missing from the site: “Temple of Heaven album 2.”

Although most of Morrison’s album titles make little sense without prior knowledge of China and its cultural geography, they are still useful as a basic frame of reference. The “Contents of the Albums“ link provides a more detailed description of each individual album including the number of photographs, the place where they were taken, and the range of subjects captured on film. In order to access more detailed bibliographic records for the 29 albums one must use the “Search VIA“ link.

The crudest way to access the collection is to search the VIA catalog using “Hedda Morrison” in the “Name (People and Organization)” field. This search results in a rather unmanageable list of 4,797 hits. To narrow the search to Morrison’s 29 albums, simply add a search limit of “album” in the “Title” field of the search engine. Detailed bibliographic information and a comprehensive list of the individual photographs contained within any particular album are accessed by clicking on an album title. Bibliographic records for individual photographs are accessed by clicking on individual photograph titles nested within the album records. Within the bibliographic record for individual photographs is a thumbnail image that enlarges when clicked.

The most obvious limitation of the collection is its regional focus on the greater Beijing metropolitan area and China’s northern provinces. There are no photographs of southern or western China, both of which vary greatly in climate, custom, and landscape from the more arid plains of north China. Instructors should make special note of this regional bias when using these photographs.

The VIA is a powerful database that allows for more fine-tuned searches. If one is interested in silk weaving, the tobacco industry, or rickshaw pullers one can limit a search using the terms “silk,” “tobacco,” or “rickshaw.” More specific searches, however, also quickly reveal certain biases and limitations of the collection. For example, despite the fact that these photographs were taken during World War II, there is virtually no reference to soldiers or warfare. Setting a search limit of “soldiers” in the “Anywhere” field yields only 11 photographs — 2 of Japanese soldiers in Jehol and 9 of Chinese soldiers celebrating the Lunar New Year. This is indicative of Morrison’s more ethnographic leanings which drew her lens not to the political and social upheavals of war and revolution, but rather to the more mundane and regular scenes of everyday life.

Morrison’s photographs evoke a sense of quietude and quaintness. A useful classroom exercise might be to invite students to search for signs of historical change in Morrison’s photographs. Another possibility is to juxtapose Morrison’s photographs of north China with those images found on the site Shanghai in Images How do the latter site’s photographs of the treaty port Shanghai differ from Morrison’s? To what can we attribute these differences? Geography and place? Intentions and motivations of the photographer? Addressing such questions would require students to think about the historical and social circumstances surrounding the production of these two archives and to critically engage with photographs, not as simple mirrors onto “reality,” but rather as historical sources.

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