The venue of that first photograph remains a mystery. In the early 1900s, that image set in motion over 60 years of what can now be called “zìpai (selfie)”. It was possibly shot at the Qing embassy in London or in a photography studio there. Ye Jinglu, a 21-year-old at the time, stood in front of a plain screen board. The carpet and decorations suggest it was just another photograph of an “ordinary embassy attaché”. Jinglu had accompanied a family member, who was a career diplomat, from Fuzhou to London for five years.
Six years later, Ye’s “personal image history” would begin in Fuzhou, the capital of southeastern China’s Fujian province, where he returned to manage the business of running a teashop and pawnshop. The year was 1907, and, in the photographs, he looks “weary”, “somewhat immature”, and, despite a shaved head, wears a pigtail. He is dressed in what is a common outfit for men in the Qing dynasty: a short jacket, long trousers, round-mouthed shoes. He is looking directly at the camera.
More than hundred years later, these descriptions find mention in Chinese photography collector Tong Bingxue’s book A Life in Portraits (2012), which follows one man’s yearly portrait of himself from 1907 till his death in 1968. “He took the photographs in local studios,” says Tong, 50, sitting in his studio near Beijing’s Renmin University. “But we can call them selfies. He arranged the photographs himself, it wasn’t done by the photographers in the studio.”
In the photograph album, Ye, who possibly learnt photography in London, chronicles time across 60 years. As Tong writes in his book, the pictures move “from his modern and stylish younger years to solid and composed middle age and to plain and leisurely senior age”, but, throughout, his eyes reflect “peace and composure”. They reveal a man maturing in the wake of rapid and significant political changes in China. From the first portrait taken in the final years of the Qing dynasty to five years later, when Ye’s hair is short and he is dressed in a long gown and a Mandarin jacket of the Republic of China (1912-49), and, later, dressed in a Lenin suit of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The subtle changes in China through the ages is clear. In his 1912 photo, Ye begins to record his age in full, according to the new calendar and not the traditional Chinese calendar. His pigtails, too, are cut off — the government posted men at the city gates to cut off this sign of servitude. In 1949, aged 68, Ye selected the PRC’s foundation day (October 1) to take his annual portrait in a white, short jacket, and trousers. “In all previous photos, Ye Jinglu looks straight or obliquely at the camera. This one is very different: his eyes are directed at the newspaper,” writes Tong. The pose is an imitation of a photograph of PRC’s founder Mao Zedong reading a newspaper taken in April of that year.
Tong came across Ye’s photographs in 2007 when an antiquarian book-store owner from Fuzhou called Tong to check if he could value a photo album, which was filled with Ye’s images and notes. “I had a website (oldChina.org) that offered free authentication and evaluation of old photos,” he says. For a “handsome price”, Tong ended up purchasing the album, and then set about finding out about Ye, through a classmate who worked as a journalist in Fuzhou. He flashed Ye’s picture, aged 88, on the evening news and people came forward to identify him.
While Ye had written diaries for years, everything “was burnt by his family during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Every family had to destroy old things,” says Tong. Somehow Ye’s album survived.
The last picture taken of Ye Jinglu was on Children’s Day (June 1) in 1968 at Shi’h Dai Photo studio, Fuzhou. He was 87, in a lined, short coat, his head slightly leaning to the right, a pen clipped on the coat’s pocket, and a smile on his lips, it was a bust portrait with a calligraphic caption that meant “longevity”.
Ye’s photography history tied straight into Tong’s own work: “I wanted to study how photography developed in China, how Chinese aesthetics combined together with photography here.” In a span of more than 20 years, Tong has 10,000 photographs in his collection and Ye’s album is among his most treasured, which he has exhibited in Kwangju, Macau, New York, Paris, Brussels and even in Ye’s hometown, Fuzhou.
Tong, a photographer, feels both public and private collections in China are important. “They are irreplaceable and complementary,” he says. The first photograph Tong owned, purchased in Beijing’s antique market Panjiayuan for 50 yuan, is of a “transfer station” for migrants in Shanxi province. That photograph led to a lifetime of collection. “In the early history of China’s photography, there are lots of mistakes and since we only have limited books on the history, I wanted to use original photographs to correct history. I collect and research,” he says.
Ye’s story is only one part of Tong’s larger collection. On the 24th floor of a Beijing high-rise is Tong’s studio, displaying a mix of paintings and photographs. Among his older collection is a painting set in the 1900s from Yunan Province. “It is a painting produced in a photography studio. In that period, you couldn’t produce large photographs, so, on request, the studio would have provided a special provision. Many early photographers were painters, who then became photographers,” says Tong. Chinese families had a tradition of ancestry portraits, of displaying only the photographs of dead family members at homes.
Tong, also a culture journalist, shows small images mounted on a wall. Flip it over, and it is a mirror, he says. “The woman,” he says, pointing at a specific photo, “could not hang her own photograph on the wall, so she turned it over and hung it as a mirror. When nobody was home, she turned it back,” he says.
From the physical wall, Tong has moved to the digital by creating a Twitter account last year. “I post on Weibo but some photos don’t have as much traction, but the response is completely different when I post on Twitter… I find it very useful also to be connected with experts on China from around the world,” he says. His latest focus is observing China through the Western brush, collecting paintings of his country by foreigners. Next month, Tong will travel to the Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts, to talk about how photography developed in China.