1917-1919, Tai Mountains, China. Young Sidney Gamble took a picture of himself, sitting on a human-powered chair and smiling with the workers. Yet Gamble was not a mere tourist, taking I-have-been-here photos wherever he went. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1890, Gamble was a social worker and an excellent amateur photographer, leaving nearly five thousand photographs of China and also publishing several works including Peking, a Social Survey and The Disappearance of Foot-Binding in Tinghsien, all of which were taken during his frequent visits to the country between 1917-1932.
An exhibition called Beijing Through Sidney Gamble’s Camera is currently being displayed at the Capital Library of China in Beijing from June 16th to 30th, showing more than a hundred photos by Gamble.
Gamble first came to China in 1908 with his parents, and nine years later, after graduating from Princeton University and University of California, Berkeley, he joined the Peking Y.M.C.A. and began his social survey in China. His figure was also found in various areas besides Beijing, from big cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu, to small villages in Sichuan Province. During these visits, he got to experience wide ranging elements of Chinese society, and most importantly, preserved this important period of Chinese history through his pen and lens.
Almost fifteen years after his death in 1968, his daughter Catherine Curran found a treasure trove of photo negatives in a closet in the family’s home in New York. Stored in rosewood boxes, the negatives were housed in individual paper sleeves and annotated with both typed and handwritten captions. To better preserve the negatives, Curran established the Sidney D. Gamble Foundation for China Studies in 1986 and signed an agreement to bring the collection to Duke University Libraries in 2006. The university had these highly flammable nitrate negatives digitized, and then launched an online database of the pictures.
Gamble captured an amazingly wide range of social events and phenomena in the post-Qing Empire China, a period with tumultuous changes and numerous movements. Quite surprisingly, Gamble’s camera is truly open-minded, unsentimental and illustrative. Not only crucial events, such as the May Fourth Movement and the Mass Education Movement, were captured, but also candid street life under incessant revolutions. He also went to schools, prisons and hospitals to present changing social systems that we hardly know today.
Viewing these startling real and imaginative photos of old Beijing in modern context is really fascinating. While some of the scenes are still visible in some villages in China, such as men with birdcages and porridge distribution during certain festivals, others are lost in evolving history. Gamble’s photos, which visually represent issues of modernization, gender and class, has frozen time for our viewing pleasure.