A new exhibition of rarely seen photographs of 1930s China has opened at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW).
Photographs of 1930s China by Stanley O. Gregory draws on original negatives from the collection of the National Library of Australia (NLA) and is a complementary exhibition to Celestial Empire: Life in China 1644–1911, which is currently showing at the NLA.
Dr Olivier Krischer, who curated the CIW exhibition, says he was drawn to Stanley Gregory’s photos not just by their depictions of China but also by the stories behind them.
A British-born Quaker, Gregory worked first in Hong Kong and then Shanghai for publisher Kelly & Walsh. He was interned in two camps in Shanghai from 1943–45, during the Japanese occupation of China, before travelling to Australia in late 1945 to reunite with his wife and children, who had left China in 1941.
Gregory was not a well-known photographer at the time and has remained relatively unknown, despite roughly 350 negatives of his photos residing along with his papers in the NLA.
“I didn’t know anything about Stanley Gregory before this and I don’t think many people do,” Dr Krischer says.
“He wasn’t known as a photographer at the time, and even though he worked as a publisher it doesn’t seem like he tried to publish his images. As far as we can see at this stage, he doesn’t seem to have been part of any amateur societies – there were actually quite a few photography groups around in Shanghai in the 30s, and there were also professional Chinese and non-Chinese photographers, but he doesn’t seem to have been part of that world.”
As well as working for Kelly & Walsh, Gregory was also heavily involved in relief work in the 1930s with refugees fleeing unrest in Europe and other parts of China. The disconnect between the picturesque, iconic images in his photos and his biography initially led Dr Krischer to doubt the photos’ provenance.
“Gregory’s papers indicate a very different type of life from what you see in the photos,” he says.
“I was immediately aware that there was this division between the life that he had led and the types of photos that he was taking, to the point where at one stage I half-suspected the photos weren’t his, in the sense that he had taken them – maybe they’d just been collected, or maybe they were somebody else’s, because he was in the publishing world. Why assume that they were part of his papers?”
In collaboration with current and former staff from the NLA and the National Gallery of Australia, Dr Krischer contacted Gregory’s son Christopher. With the family’s help – particularly through access to family photo albums – they were able to determine that the photos in the NLA collection were taken by Gregory. Three of Gregory’s grandchildren and their families, who live in Brisbane and Canberra, also attended the exhibition launch.
“We could compare what was in the National Library with what was in the family photo albums, and start to get a better idea of how he’d taken these photos,” Dr Krischer says.
“It then became clear that he had actually taken the photos – there’s a number of photos showing him in the 1920s walking around with a portable Kodak or Lloyd Vestpocket camera, which is probably the type he used to take these photos.”
The large-format prints on display were made from high-resolution scans of the negatives, which were then printed by the specialised printing laboratory at the ANU School of Art, known as the Inkjet Print Lab. Creating new prints rather than displaying originals meant fewer conservation and fragility issues, and allowed the bulk of the exhibition to be pulled together in around three months.
Both this exhibition and Celestial Empire demonstrate the value of collaboration between the ANU and Australia’s national institutions, Dr Krischer says.
“I think both institutions are very happy with the outcomes of the two exhibitions, and there’s massive potential for collaboration. The National Library has incredible holdings which it just doesn’t get to show, and a lot of it is visual, which people often don’t know – for example, collections of posters.
“These things lend themselves very readily to this type of collaboration, where CIW can present the academic, historical research side, which often takes the Library a lot of time. The resources are obviously close at hand, and physically it’s also a very easy relationship because things don’t have to travel very far – we can travel very easily to the National Library for any meetings or viewings. So all of that I think lends itself to further collaboration.”
For Dr Krischer, one of the most valuable parts of the exhibition has been having the chance to bring a piece of Australia’s history to life.
“Originally this was an exhibition that was supposed to be very simple – looking at photos that were obviously beautiful images of a bygone era in China,” he says.
“But when we started doing more of the biographical research it became clear that this person was very interesting, and then as we got in touch with the family we realised how close this history was to us. It’s still a living history – the family is still very much around. Both Gregory’s son Christopher and daughter Ann, and now their children, are very interested in this history and very proud of it, and yet they were quite aware that it wasn’t very well-known and hadn’t really been given much consideration despite the fact that the materials are actually in the National Library.
“I think there are probably a lot of materials like this that reflect on aspects of what is essentially Australia’s history, which could still be worked on and revealed.”
Photographs of 1930s China by Stanley O. Gregory runs until 20 March. The Australian Centre on China in the World gallery is open 9am–5pm, Monday to Friday, with selected weekend viewings on 27–28 February and 19–20 March, 10am–4pm.