Glass lantern slide, part of the Great Wall, hand coloured glass / metal, made by Serge Vargassoff, Peking, China, 1920-1949
These glass slides were taken by the Russian-born photographer Serge Vargassoff (1906-1965) who established himself as a professional photographer, at the age of 20, in Peking (Beijing), China and became a long-term resident of the city. Later he established a studio 'Serge Vargassoff Photography' at 3A Wyndham Street Hong Kong, as well as working at "Gainsborough Studio, Morning Post Building, Hong Kong". Vargassoff was well known to Hedda Hammer Morrision. Hedda Morrison writes fondly of Vargassoff in her book, A Photographer in Old Peking (1985), "[Serge Vargassoff] was an excellent, though not very businesslike, photographer. We enjoyed a firm friendship and it was he who brought me the news of the Japanese surrender - and a bottle of vodka with which to celebrate the event."
The slides were most likely selected from a vast collection of Vargassoff's black-and-white silver gelatin photographs. A great many capture the city of Peking (Beijing), its sites and people. The glass slides depict historical sites and people of Beijing, including the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, the Great Wall, white dagoba, marble bridge and the Dragon Wall in Pei Hai (Bei Hai), the main temple of Ta Hui Ssu, Buddhist monks and street scenes. Early photographs of China are important historical documents and many of those that have survived may be found in public collections. Photographs provide perspectives on the places photographed as well as perceptions of photographers about those places. Photographs taken by Serge Vargassoff, document aspects of Chinese life from a western perspective in the days before the rise of the Communist Government. The photographs enable viewers to better understand the complex social and cultural changes that have taken place in China over the past sixty years. This collection is particularly valuable because it documents the oeuvre of one photographer - Serge Vargassoff, a contemporary of Hedda Hammer Morrison whose work is also well represented in the museum's collection. It provides important insights into his commercial practice and the subjects that were of interest to him.
Based on the subject matter of the glass slides, it is estimated that some images were taken between 1910 and 1920. The first national flag of the Republic of China, known as wuseqi (five-coloured flag), appears in one slide with Chinese solders. The flag was mainly used in Shanghai and northern China from the establishment of the government of the Republic of China (RoC) on January 1, 1912 until the demise of the warlord government in 1928. Five coloured stripes in the flag represented, according to Sun Yat-sen, the five ethnic groups divided under the Han Dynasty in China: the Han (red), the Manchu (yellow), the Mongol (blue), the Hui (white), and the Tibetan (black) people.
Many aerial shots of in and around Beijing included in the slide collection are also precise images of Beijing during the time. Given that the airways were strictly controlled by the Chinese Nationalist Government and private aeroplanes were not allowed at that time, the slides provide important documentation of the city. One aerial image depicts a view of the Forbidden City with part of the plane wing which has Chinese characters visible on it. In addition, the colours of the glass slides are a significant part of their aesthetic value as the images are in good condition and are very clear, sharp and vibrant in colour. The colours were chosen with artistic intention and hand-painted using fine brushes. A wide range of colour spectrum captured in Vargassoff's images is rarely found in coloured glass slides of the period.
By 1920, photography was established as a popular pastime and a profession. Given the difficulties of making pictures with early cameras, it is not surprising that the oldest photographs were mostly the work of professional photographers. Foreign travellers to Asian countries often purchased photographs taken by professional photographers, such as Vargassoff, during their visits.
Hedda Morrison, A Photographer in Old Peking, Hong Kong; Oxford University Press, 1985, p.11
Alastair Morrison, Hedda Morrison in Peking: A Personal Recollection, in East Asian History, Number 4 December 1992, p106
Written by Anna Kim, Research Assistant Curatorial
Produced from around 1920 to 1949.
The majority of the slides are duplicate images of Serge Vargassoff's black and white photographs from five albums titled 'Views' and loose prints from the Museum's collection.
Located along the Yanshan Mountain range in the northeast of the Miyun District of Beijing, the Gubeikou Great Wall occupies a strategically important location which is difficult to access. Situated between Shanhaiguan Pass and Juyongguan Pass about 100 kilometres from Beijing, it is the bastion protecting the northern gateway to the capital.
The first section of the wall was built during the Northern Qi dynasty (550-557). Centuries later, General Xuda rebuilt it in the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The defensive capability of the wall was enhanced by adding more stones. When Qi Jiguang was appointed the chief commanding officer of Ji Garrison (one of the eleven garrisons in Ming Dynasty), he laid another line of brick wall beside the original one, thus forming the unique Gubeikou double-lined Wall.
Today the Gubeikou Great Wall stretches for more than 40 kilometres. There are 14 beacon towers, 143 watchtowers, 16 strategic pass, three citadels and many other military constructions. Many of them are famous cultural relics, such as the Big Flower Beacon Tower of the Northern Qi dynasty, Fairy Tower, General Tower, and the dominant Wangjing Tower.
The glass slides were donated by Vera Vargassoff, niece of Serge Vargassoff.
Vargassoff's photographs were awarded and published. His studio works are found in Mario Prodan's 'Certain Ming Ivories' published in 1941 by Popular Island Press Peking. His two photographs that are also part of the collection of this collection of lantern slides were contributed for the article 'The Lotus' by Eleanor Consten published in '20th Century, Volume 6'. His photograph of 'The main temple of Ta Hui-Ssu in Peking' also won the second prize of the first photo contest of the magazine under the theme of Buddhism and is also included in this collection.