Photography to Get at Home 5: Past and Present in Beijing

One of the great fascinations of photography is the insight into other places and other people’s lives that it gives.

Even in times of seemingly pervasive Photoshop-ing (and even given the long history of photographic fakery), there is a power to the photojournalistic image.

See: Dead Syrian refugee boy on Turkey beach.
But also, if you know of it: “How the Other Half Lives.”

We can’t easily get into photojournalism here, but the insight from photography even extends into earlier times, and it is here that projects for at-home-making can connect with a place and across time:

Old family photos may give some memory; old photos of places give some insight – and the rediscovery of those places in the present time, then, provides a link between past and present through which both can become clearer.

Or if not become clearer, then at least, well, be brought into sharper focus.

As yet another playful practice using my native Vienna as its object, I tried this with postcard views of Vienna before

Vienna, Rathaus, Then and Now at Once
Vienna, Rathaus (Town Hall)

… and when I went to work in Beijing for a while, China being known for such great and rapid changes that you can (supposedly) never leave and come back to the same city, I embarked on a slightly more serious photographic expedition / adventuring.

I set out to find old photographs of the city depicting places of some importance and history, then tried to find those places in today’s Beijing and to combine the two views.

Copyright questions made for a bit of an odyssey above and beyond the question of where to find images that stood a chance of including structures that were still around, but it all eventually worked out:

Austrian photographer’s Beijing pictures (provided by the Austrian-Chinese Society, also published as/in a book called Paizhao: das alte China in der Linse österreichischer Fotografen [Old China in the Lens of Austrian Photographers] and the (no-longer copyrighted) Beijing photo album of Philipp Alfons Mumm von Schwarzenstein (online here and here) gave me some material to work with (and be permitted to use and publish)…

I decided to, once again, go for the effect of having past and present intermingle in single images.

This makes it more difficult to compare old and new views (unlike the use of the journalistic Juxtapose JS that Knight Labs offers would do), but it also makes the photographs more artistic and, in my opinion, draws even more attention to the continuities that also exist, in the buildings and with the people.

The engagement this project made necessary, with photo archives and the old views included in them and with a city’s historical places and their present made me feel considerably more familiar with this city, these places, and its people… More at home.

It was also this project which made me seek out Beijing’s Buddhist Temples – and a book will soon come out of this.

Funny side effect: It became very noticeable in the course of this work how popular certain genres of photography (portraits in popular places, almost like selfies…) and certain views had already been, even back around 1900…

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  1. […] the previous stay, I was also working on re-discovering some old views of Beijing and their blending with the corresponding modern […]

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