Isabelle Bird, Trackers Houses on the Banks of the Yangtze, 1896
Source: The Ammonite Press.
In sketching, a landscape is represented by signs on paper, but in photography the actual view is imprinted as an image by the light that shone at that moment in time. What, though if this 'indexical' process of signification went beyond just the action of light? An article I was reading in the New York Review of Books this week suggests further possibilities. Here Colin Thubron is discussing the journey into China of the nineteenth century photographer, Isabella Bird.
'After sunset she would set about developing the glass-plate negatives and toning her prints. Her darkroom was the Chinese night, but she had to block up chinks in the cabin walls to keep out the light of opium lamps. Then she cleaned the chemical from her negatives in the river and hung the printing-frames over the side of the boat. A faint trace of Yangtze mud survives on a few of her prints.'So, in addition to light, her landscapes were imprinted with Chinese soil, dissolved in its great river. All four elements could be said to have gone into the formation of these photographs. The river's form was traced by light, purified by water and earth, and then fixed into permanence by the air that passing over its surface.
Isabella Bird, Hsin Tan Rapid on the Yangtze River, 1896
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Yangtze River that the sixty-four year old Isabella Bird travelled had no modern dams or steam boats. Thubron admires her courage in ascending its gorges in a shallow-bottomed houseboat, rowed by sixteen men who would 'heave against the current and curl into wadded quilts at night, lost in opium sleep'. It was a perilous and uncomfortable journey. 'Where perpendicular cliffs constricted the Yangtze into a fearsome torrent, big junks and sampans were hauled upriver by teams of trackers sometimes four hundred strong, threading precipitous paths and rock-cut steps with the din of drums and gongs and the explosion of firecrackers to intimidate the spirit of the rapids ... The steep shores and inlets were littered with ships’ remains, and with human skeletons.' But this was also a world of beauty, barely known to Western travellers. 'With its canopied bridges and watermills and temples rising from bamboo and cedar groves, it intoxicated Bird by its sheer luxuriance, and by its conformity to some childhood expectation (the word “picturesque” recurs), as if she were traveling through a timeless Cathay.'
Isabella Bird, A Bridge at Wan Hsien of the Single Arch Type, 1896
Source: Wikimedia Commons