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Early Photography in Asia

A guide to photographs taken in Asia before 1940, including those held in the CU Boulder Libraries' Rare and Distinctive Collections and in other institutions.

About this Guide

This guide provides information and direct links for those interested in early original photography in Asia held at the University of Colorado Boulder and beyond. To get started, check out the introduction below and use the tabs at the top of the guide to navigate to specific regions. Entries by country include a link to University of Colorado Boulder digitized photographs or to the library catalog entry for the item (if it is not digitized). If you are interested in seeing items that are not digitized, schedule an appointment in the Rare and Distinctive Collections reading room in Norlin Library. Each page on this guide also includes links to other relevant digital libraries of institutions with early photographs of the region.

An Introduction to Early Photography in Asia

The first true photographs were produced in Europe in 1839. In the decades that followed, photographic technology developed quickly. By the 1850s and 1860s, the wet collodion process was replacing older technologies to produce a glass-plate negative that could be used to create photographic prints in a dark room. By the 1870s, the dry collodion process made it even easier to take photographs in the field and make many prints from a negative.

The earliest photographs and photographic technology in Asia came via Europeans through colonialism or semi-colonialism. Samuel Bourne, for example, was a British citizen who set up a studio in India in the 1860s. He produced over 2000 photographs and sold prints of a variety of people, cities, and landscapes in India and the Himalayas.

Samuel Bourne, "View from the Thibet road at Pangi - Great Chini Peaks in the background." 1866.

European merchants and tourists in China and Japan were also early consumers of photographs. The Japanese port city of Yokohama, for example, had photographic studios set up as early as 1860 (Wakita, 2013). Japanese and Chinese photographers set up studios in many cities by the 1870s and 1880s, aiming to appeal to both citizens of their countries and foreigners. For example, Lai Afong worked in British studios in Hong Kong before setting up his own studio in 1870. Kazumasa Ogawa, a Japanese photographer and printer, set up the first photographic studio in Tokyo in 1884 and published many photo books in Japanese and English.

However, the majority of countries in Asia were colonized or under colonial control during the second half of the nineteenth century, just as photographic technology was spreading. In most colonized countries, photography and photographic infrastructure (the chemicals, cameras, paper, and dark rooms) remained items of the colonizers (there were exceptions to this, particularly in port cities or international cities such as Singapore). Colonial powers often used photography to support their agenda and assert control. European and American tourists, consciously or unconsciously, often perpetuated racism and biases through their photography.

"Residence in Rangoon." c. 1885-1895. A photograph of British colonists in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma).

About CU's Rare and Distinctive Collections

The Rare and Distinctive Collections at the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries holds an important collection of historical photographs taken in Asia as part of our broader collection strength in the history of photograph and published photography books. We continue to build this collection through new acquisitions to support research and instruction on campus and beyond. To find these and additional materials held in our Rare and Distinctive Collections, search the following databases:

CU Digital Library

  • This link takes you to the CU Digital Library, where you can keyword search for images or browse our "Early Photography in Asia" Collection.

Library Catalog Advanced Search

  • This link takes you to a library catalog advanced search. The best way to find additional relevant books here at CU is to run this advanced search by keyword and limit the search with a date range. For example, put in Burma as a keyword and limit the date range between 1800 and 1900. The second option to see only Rare Books is to run a search and use the filters on the right to filter the "Shelf Location" to "Norlin Library - Rare Books Collection."

Archives Database

  • This link takes you to our archival repository. Here, you can browse finding aids and keyword search our unpublished collections, including collections of original photographs.

The Rare and Distinctive Collections Reading Room

  • Although rare materials cannot be checked out at the library, anyone is welcome to view the material in our Reading Room, located in Norlin Library. This link will take you to more information about hours and scheduling an appointment.

Rare and Distinctive Collections


Classroom: Norlin N345

Reading Room: Norlin M350B


Rare Books Librarian

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Sean Babbs

Chinese & Asian Studies Librarian

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Xiang Li
(303) 492-7454