Hedda Morrison: Photographer of old Beijing
Posted: 05 Mar 2003
"Around midday we reach Kubbekko and thus the Great Wall, that is the Manchukuo-China border . Passport control, customs, lots of soldiers, many walls and hot noonday sun. There are slogans painted on the rocks extolling the friendship of Japan with the new state. We drive on after a two-hour stay."
Pioneering photographer Hedda Hammer Morrison wrote these comments next to a landscape photograph (number 11) in her Jehol album. Morrison travelled by truck to Jehol in northern China in the summer of 1943. Shortly before her arrival, the Japanese had seized the north-eastern provinces of Manchuria and established the puppet government of Manchukuo. Morrison returned to Beijing from this and other adventurous trips and presented her photos in loose-leaf albums for customers at Hartung's Photo Shop, where she was the manager, by pasting them onto cards with accompanying handwritten text. To read the words (translated from German by Herta Imhof ) while viewing the pictures is to imagine you are on a regular outing in pre-Communist China, complete with vehicles bogged in mud.
The Jehol album forms part of the Hedda Morrison Collection in the Harvard-Yenching Library at Harvard University. Although Morrison lived in Canberra for her last 24 years, most of her work has been tragically lost to overseas collections. Some of it has remained in Australia only due to Claire Roberts, senior curator of Asian decorative arts and design at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. A year after Morrison died in 1991 at the age of 82, her husband Alastair Morrison gave the museum more than 400 black-and-white photographs - exhibition prints the artist had prepared herself, some which had never been shown publicly - and a huge collection of personal memorabilia including south Asian bronzes, documents and a valuable book collection, all providing background and context to her 13 years in China.
Although the Powerhouse has the largest Morrison collection in Australia, her archive of some 10,000 negatives, 6,000 prints and 29 albums was bequeathed to the Harvard-Yenching Library and her South-East Asian collection went to Cornell University in New York State.
Morrison's talent and the importance of her work were appreciated by scholars and others interested in China and South-East Asia while she was alive, but the major galleries and general public largely overlooked her. Her husband said Harvard and Cornell were chosen to receive the biggest donations because they specialised in Chinese history, and there was no implied criticism of Australian universities. The Australian National University and the University of Sydney had held small exhibitions of Morrison's work but they did not have the resources of their American counterparts. Her Australian photographs are in the National Library and are available to the public on request.
"Hedda and I had looked into finding a home for her material," Alastair told me. "Harvard has digitised all Hedda's photos and they are available on the internet. I don't think they could have done that here [because of the cost]."
In recognition of his generosity to the Powerhouse, Alastair has been made a life fellow, joining an elite group with Dick Smith and Ken Done. "It seemed a bit ironic," he joked, "to be made a life fellow at the age of 87."
Morrison is now internationally recognised as an important documentary photographer. A selection of her Chinese work was seen late last year in a fascinating Powerhouse exhibition, Old Peking/New Beijing, following a showing at the Art Museum of the China Millennium Monument in Beijing. The exhibition was co-curated by Roberts and Queensland historian Sang Ye.
Hedda Hammer was given her first camera at the age of 11, and when she left Nazi Germany in 1933, aged 24, to take up a job at the studio in Beijing, the most important items she packed were her Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras. She travelled all over China - often alone - and explored Beijing on bicycle, taking thousands of photos of walls, palaces, parks, temples, archways, street hawkers, food, entertainment, and religious and folk customs. She found inspiration in the street life and everyday activities of the one million ordinary working people in the city, the last of the great imperial Chinese capitals, surrounded by a wall and outer moat. She was particularly interested in traditional crafts and recorded the process of making and creating.
Hedda and Alastair married in 1946. He was a Beijing-born Australian, the second son of Dr George Ernest Morrison, the Beijing correspondent for The Times and one of the most influential foreign correspondents of his era. They decided to leave China at the time of the Communist revolution in 1947 and settled in Sarawak, Borneo, where Alastair was in the British Colonial Service and a district officer. They travelled to many remote areas before moving to Canberra in 1967, where the Government Employment Office told Morrison photography was not a job for a woman. Alastair was then working for the Defence Department and he helped her get to Papua New Guinea, Java, Bali and the Solomon Islands to keep taking photos.
"She'd go off on her own. She was a good traveller," he said with typical understatement.
Alastair wrote about their life in China in The Road to Peking (1998), which Pandanus Books republished in 2001 as The Bird Fancier: a Journey to Peking.
I interviewed Morrison and her husband in late 1990, with photographer Sandy Edwards. I was touched by Morrison's humility, generosity of spirit and sense of good fun. She said she did not have a philosophy when it came to photography: "I simply learned to see and observe and was fascinated. I was very lucky. Whenever Alastair noticed I was itchy to do something somewhere, he shipped me off."
Around that time, Roberts got in touch about the possibility of a retrospective exhibition. She had met Morrison in 1989 when artist Narelle Jubelin was working on petit-point renditions of photos in her book A Photographer in Old Peking (Oxford University Press, 1985). Sadly, Morrison died before seeing the major retrospective, In Her View: The Photographs of Hedda Morrison in China and Sarawak 1933-67, at the Powerhouse in 1993.
"Alastair had a strong desire to see Hedda's photos shown in Beijing during his lifetime," Roberts explained. "He and Hedda had discussed that, and I decided I would try to make it happen."
The result was Old Peking/New Beijing, enthusiastically supported by the Chinese Minister of Culture and marking 30 years of diplomatic relations between China and Australia. Morrison's photos were complemented by specially commissioned photos of new Beijing. The photographers' brief had been to document the look of the city over seven days in 2000, including expressways, contemporary architecture and modern life.
About 50,000 people saw the show in China. Heritage issues are topical, with many old areas and buildings being bulldozed in the lead-up the 2008 Olympics, and it struck a chord. As a result of the wider debate, 25 areas are now legally protected from further development.
Families spanning three generations were fascinated by the photos of street traders, some of whom still sell similar food today. Grandparents explained to children the trades that had disappeared, and others that had barely changed - such as the traditional art of scroll-mounting, represented by a photo of a workshop in Linlichang, where craftspeople still work on a red lacquer table using brushes like those of the 1930s.
The Sydney exhibition included memorabilia the Morrisons collected from markets and curio shops and donated to the museum. There were papercuts traditionally pasted on the paper windows of houses at New Year, representing special wishes, and many toggles, auspicious ornamental charms worn since the Ching dynasty to attach purses to belts.
"I was very pleased they showed Hedda's photos in Beijing," Alastair said. "Not so long ago photos taken by foreigners wouldn't have been officially exhibited. I don't think an official body like the city government would have sponsored it."
Image: Lacquer carving workshop, Peking, 1933-46. Collection of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.