A fascinating collection of images taken by legendary Scottish photographer John Thomson while on a visit to Siam in 1865 is currently on display at the National Gallery on Chao Fah Road in Bangkok’s Phra Nakorn area. Edinburgh-born Thomson, an early pioneer of photojournalism, travelled extensively in the Far East on a number of visits during 1864-1872. In addition to his sojourn in Bangkok he spent time in Singapore, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Malaya (Malaysian Peninsula), Sumatra, China, Formosa (Taiwan), and Cambodia (he is thought to be the first person to photograph Angkor Wat).
While in Siam, Thomson took a series of photographs of the ruler, King Mongkut (Rama IV) and his senior courtiers and government officials. He also travelled to rural areas to document the lives of ordinary Thais. At the time cameras were large and heavy and photographic images were exposed on glass negatives. This had to be done in complete darkness, on location, in a portable darkroom tent. Hence Thomson travelled with a large number of cumbersome crates, fragile negative plates and highly flammable and poisonous chemicals. Given that his journeys took him through difficult terrain and insect-infested jungles, sometimes to regions where a white man had not been seen before, it is all the more remarkable that he was able to make photographs of such beauty and sensitivity. A fellow of The Royal Geographical Society, in 1881 Thomson was appointed photographer to the British royal family by Queen Victoria. He died in 1921 aged 84.
“Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson” marks 150 years since the photographer’s visit to the land of Smiles. It runs at the National Gallery until February 28 (admission free). Featuring 60 historically important images – expertly preserved by the Wellcome Library in London – this is the first time Thomson’s photographs of Siam have been shown together.
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