photos and stories from the Powerhouse Museum
Photographer Hedda Morrison, (1908-1991), was born Hedda Hammer in Stuttgart, Germany. She acquired her first camera, a Box Brownie, at the age of 11. In 1931, after completing studies at the State Institute for Photography in Munich and working in the studio of photographer Adolf Lazi (1884-1955), she answered an advertisement in a photography journal for a job in Peking.
In Peking Morrison managed Hartung’s photographic studio from 1933-1938. After her contract expired she continued to work freelance from a small darkroom in her home in Nanchang Street. The young photographer travelled around the city, usually by bicycle, often photographing its inhabitants. Many of these photographs are part of the Hedda Morrison Photographic Collection Some have also been posted on Photo of the Day.
In this image the European-trained photographer interprets a scene that could have taken place in the previous century with a modernist’s eye. The high angle view and the strong diagonals created by the the rickshaws and the shadows to create a semi-abstract composition.
This photograph also contains a story. In her book, A Photographer in Old Peking, Hedda wrote:
The woman with the child had been bargaining with the rickshaw men in the foreground. As part of the bargaining process she turns to walk away but will be called back by the man who accepts the fare offered. It was arduous work for the pullers who suffered, espcially during the bitterly harsh north China winter…
Rickshaws were everywhere, powered by men who aged rapidly with the hard work, especially during the bitter winter months. A cry of ‘Yang-ch’e', (foreign cart) would generally bring several rickshaws running to bargain with the potential passenger. This harsh side of life in Peking between the two world wars has been vividly portrayed in Lao She’s famous novel, Rickshaw. Human labour was also in general used to power other kinds of short distance transport. As the years passed many of the old-fashioned two-wheeled rickshaws were replaced by more efficient and less stable three-wheeled bicycle rickshaws, but almost all degrading human labour of this kind has been abolished since the revolution of 1949.
According to the catalogue record, rickshaws were introduced to Shanghai from Japan in 1886 and made their appearance in Peking in 1898. Once one of the major modes of transport in the city, in the 1930s they were gradually replaced by pedicabs. They disappeared from the streets of Peking in 1953.
Post by Kathy Hackett, Photo Librarian
Photography by Hedda Morrison
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