Wednesday, 1 June 2016

"I secretly celebrate this first success ,..."


This item was basis of an exhibition of 20 images presented at the first Shenzhen International Photography Festival, China, __ June 2017, co-curated with Su Yuezhou, editor of Photoint English-language website.  

 © C139-3. Tom Hutchins. Self-portrait in a Fushun coal mine, Liaoning Province,
China, with Nikon camera.j

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. Tom Hutchins, 1956

This quote comes from an unpublished typed manuscript titled 'The Bridge at Shumchun', about Tom Hutchins' crossing into China from Hong Kong on 9 May 1956. Encumbered with camera equipment and a suitcase, he was anxious about the formalities of entering Communist China, the previously forbidden country.

'On the platform there are many people waiting to cross the otherr 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. As she looks up tables and concentrates on getting a few words away to a strange place called New Zealand I keep my camera busy, and behind it 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.'

Not surprisingly, some of his first photographs, which are shown here for the first time, were rather tentative, but an essential beginning for the four months of non-stop activity that followed.

'With the ice broken', the 35 year old New Zealander and new father continued, 'I turn my camera on kiddies playing around the seats, people resting, posters asking for more production, more education, better health. And then the patient Mr. Wong reminds me of the customs formalities. With apologies for the necessity and trouble to take the numbers of my five cameras the customs officer takes my word for the amount of film I have loaded into my bags. Provided I can assure them that I will not sell or give away any of the film there is only one form to be filled in in triplicate, and I am free to have a fine lunch of chicken, vegetables and rice with delicate [jasmine?] tea.'

The first roll of film

 ©Tom Hutchins. C02. detail from proof sheet of his first photographs of China made on 9 May 1956

 ©Tom Hutchins. C2-6. Crossing the border at Sumchun-Lowu from the British Hong Kong side, looking towards China, 9 May 1956. He was told that it was ok to take photographs as long as he did not show the bridge. (Meaning, I think, views that might aid a potential saboteur.)

©Tom Hutchins. C2/16. Women and children, Canton, China, 9 May 1956

 ©Tom Hutchins. C2/18. View from a Canton bus, China, 9 May 1956. The photographer noted the Western-style print top of the younger woman in contrast with the older woman in the traditional black costume, and commented that they had just got off the train from Sumchun to Canton

©Tom Hutchins. C2/22. Woman and child in the back seats of a bus, 
Canton, 9 May 1956

©Tom Hutchins. C2/38. People's Liberation Army soldier on a Canton bus.
The photographer noted that this officer had stood up to give him a seat on the bus

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, much to his disgust.  

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 Hutchins' country did not go so far as the United States, which banned its journalists and photographers from visiting China, New Zealand towed the US line in most respects, fearful of being contaminated by Communism. Tom had hoped for his wife Florence to go with him, but in the end he had only 10 days notice to get himself China-ready

He was already freelancing for Time, Life and Sports Illustrated. Life magazine first published his work in January 1948, two months after his 26th birthday, with his innovative composite panorama of a fatal fire in a Christchurch apartment store. 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. Cartier-Bresson's fellow Magnum photographers, starting with Marc Riboud, Brian Brake (perhaps New Zealand's best-known photographer), Rene Burri and Hiroshi Hamaya were to follow Hutchins in 1957 and later.  Consequently, Hutchins' work, which covered aspects of the Russian influence, as well as Xinjiang Province for the first time, fills some of the gaps in the documentaton of the period by outstanding foreign photographers.

Life assisted by processing and filing most of Hutchins' films for quick retrieval. An eight page, 22-image essay was published in Life as 'Red China on the March' in January 1957

Since then, for the past 60 years, this remarkable photographic record of revolutionary China has been out of sight and out of mind, because the photographer's interest was lost when he could not find a publisher for his book in the 1960s, and other more compelling personal and public issues got in the way. 

Among the rotting cardboard boxes of damaged papers, publications and manuscripts found stored under Tom Hutchins' house in 1989, were around 600 rotting Agfa Brovira 8x10 inch prints made for his intended book on China. His negatives were not found and appeared lost - for five years after when they were rediscoveed. But all that is another story.

Before he died, at the age of 86 in March 2007, we completed, after two decades of spare-time work, a master list of his choice of his most significant photographs of China. We made archival proof sheets and as many archival 8x10 prints, under his critical supervision, as we could - around 600. And since then we have scanned his selected but unprinted negatives, from which to make archival digital prints as required. 

The first exhibitions and publications of Tom Hutchins' China essay will be drawn from the 700 image "Master Collection" he nominated, to honour his status as an independent eye-witness and participant-observer of a new nation in the making. 

Images and quotes copyright of Tom Hutchins Images Ltd, New Zealand. 
For further information contact John B Turner, Projects Manager, Tom Hutchins Images Ltd, at

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