Seen in China, 1956
-- Written by John B Turner
‘I secretly celebrate this first success in doing what I had come to China for—photographing in my own way and on my own terms these people who number a quarter of mankind.’ This quote is from [New Zealand photographer] Tom Hutchin's [1921-2007] unpublished typed manuscript titled 'The Bridge at Shumchun', about his crossing into China from Hong Kong on 9 May 1956. Encumbered with a suitcase and camera equipment he was anxious about the formal restrictions for entering Communist China which was then closed to most of the world.
'On the platform there are many people waiting to cross the other way, waiting for the train back to Hongkong' he wrote. 'No one seems to mind having their pictures taken, and the attractive girl who sends off my cable from a raised bureau in the middle of the platform blushes and smiles with charming embarrassment as I focus closely on her, and a few smiling people gather to watch.’ […]
Tom did not stay long in Canton (Guangdong), which is the area most of New Zealand's early Chinese migrants came from, because he planned to come back later, and did so in September. By then, however, the Chinese authorities thought he was asking too many difficult questions and cut short his six month visa by six weeks.
Tom was in China as an independent free-lance photographer, and although he was Chief Photographer at the Auckland Star, the liberal evening newspaper dropped him when he heard late in April 1956 that the People's Republic of China had finally issued him a visa. This was New China's first nervous period of opening up to foreigners, when the Cold War was firmly in place. Although New Zealand did not go so far as the United States, which banned its journalists and photographers from visiting China, it toed the Capitalist world's anti-Communist US line. […]
Life magazine had first published his work in January 1948, two months after his 26th birthday, with a composite panorama of the fatal November 1947 fire that gutted Ballantynes department store in Christchurch. He was a new member of the Black Star picture agency in New York, and had the support of Time/Life's editors for his potential China scoop, as the first non-Communist western photojournalist to cover revolutionary China since Henri Cartier-Bresson. […]
Since then, for the past 60 years, this remarkable photographic record of revolutionary China has been out of sight and out of mind. Tom had lost interest in it when he could not find a publisher for his book in the 1960s and other more compelling personal and work issues got in the way. These interruptions included founding the first full-time academic courses in film and photography in the British Commonwealth. He taught both media at the University of Auckland's Elam School of Fine Arts, from 1965 until his retirement in 1980 and was a highly influential teacher who demanded high standards from his students and staff. […]
Among the disintegrating cardboard boxes of damaged papers, publications and manuscripts found by Mala Mayo and myself under Tom Hutchins' Remuera, Auckland house early in 1989 were around 600 rotting Agfa Brovira 8x10 inch prints made for his intended book on China. We could not find his negatives, which appeared lost but were rediscovered several years later, in good condition, inside Tom's house. But all that is another story.
Before he died at the age of 86 on 15 March 2007, he and I completed, after two decades of spare-time work, a master list of his choice of his most significant photographs of China. Archival proof sheets and around 600 archival 8x10 new prints were made under his critical supervision. Since then, those prints have been scanned along with many of his selected but unprinted negatives, from which to make archival digital prints as and when required. […]
Images are available for editorial features and prints can be purchased via John B Turner's website.
More information: jbt.photoshelter.com