"Picturing Hong Kong: Photography 1855-1910," at the Asia Society through Aug. 17, is, above all, a timely exhibition. The 75 photographs underline Hong Kong's bicultural identity on the brink of its handover to China.
Photography, invented in 1826, and Hong Kong, a small fishing village claimed by the British as a trading outpost in 1841, grew up together. The earliest images have a naive artlessness. Compositions became more artful as photographers like John Thomson and Felice Beato mastered the medium. Film speed increased, shutter speed decreased, and formal portraits of stiffly posed subjects gave way to more spontaneous glimpses of life.
The pictures will interest historians and photography connoisseurs. Those looking for material evidence of life at a particular time and place will find plenty of vivid scenes. "A Street Market in Hong Kong, China" (c. 1900) depicts the cacophony of an outdoor market, as the Chinese bend to the business of buying and selling amid baskets and goods.
Yet the documentary "reality" of photographs is deceptive. Many scenes are staged studio portraits that reinforce stereotypes of exotic foreigners. A genteel portrait by Pun Lun of a Chinese girl emphasizes the traditional props she holds, like fan and flowers. To 20th-century eyes, her bound feet, small knobs, horrify.
Lai Afong's "Chinese Woman and Child" (c. 1880s) transcends conventional portraiture. Instead of a static subject, a young mother seems to be pausing to confront the viewer with a bold stare.
Some photographs underscore British domination. A portrait of a young girl sitting sidesaddle on a donkey, "Annie and House Boy" (1887), is eloquent. Posed before a grand, Beaux-Arts stone mansion, an English girl regards the camera with imperial hauteur. An adult Chinese groom stands subserviently behind.
Felice Beato's "Panorama of Hong Kong Showing the Fleet for the North China Expedition" (1860) conveys an impression of hovering menace. A huge armada of Anglo-French warships occupies the harbor. Although their sails are furled, the image of power about to be unleashed is ominous.
The photographs show Hong Kong as it was and as it was supposed to be, according to its colonial masters. Showing what it will be next would take a crystal ball rather than a camera lens.