Serge Vargassoff. China, 1910s.
These glass slides were taken by the Russian-born photographer Serge Vargassoff (1906-1965) who established himself as a professional photographer, at the age of 20, in Peking (Beijing), China and became a long-term resident of the city. Later he established a studio 'Serge Vargassoff Photography' at 3A Wyndham Street Hong Kong, as well as working at "Gainsborough Studio, Morning Post Building, Hong Kong". Vargassoff was well known to Hedda Hammer Morrision. Hedda Morrison writes fondly of Vargassoff in her book, A Photographer in Old Peking (1985), "[Serge Vargassoff] was an excellent, though not very businesslike, photographer. We enjoyed a firm friendship and it was he who brought me the news of the Japanese surrender - and a bottle of vodka with which to celebrate the event."
The slides were most likely selected from a vast collection of Vargassoff's black-and-white silver gelatin photographs. A great many capture the city of Peking (Beijing), its sites and people. The glass slides depict historical sites and people of Beijing, including the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, the Great Wall, white dagoba, marble bridge and the Dragon Wall in Pei Hai (Bei Hai), the main temple of Ta Hui Ssu, Buddhist monks and street scenes. Early photographs of China are important historical documents and many of those that have survived may be found in public collections. Photographs provide perspectives on the places photographed as well as perceptions of photographers about those places. Photographs taken by Serge Vargassoff, document aspects of Chinese life from a western perspective in the days before the rise of the Communist Government. The photographs enable viewers to better understand the complex social and cultural changes that have taken place in China over the past sixty years. This collection is particularly valuable because it documents the oeuvre of one photographer - Serge Vargassoff, a contemporary of Hedda Hammer Morrison whose work is also well represented in the museum's collection. It provides important insights into his commercial practice and the subjects that were of interest to him.
Based on the subject matter of the glass slides, it is estimated that some images were taken between 1910 and 1920. The first national flag of the Republic of China, known as wuseqi (five-coloured flag), appears in one slide with Chinese solders. The flag was mainly used in Shanghai and northern China from the establishment of the government of the Republic of China (RoC) on January 1, 1912 until the demise of the warlord government in 1928. Five coloured stripes in the flag represented, according to Sun Yat-sen, the five ethnic groups divided under the Han Dynasty in China: the Han (red), the Manchu (yellow), the Mongol (blue), the Hui (white), and the Tibetan (black) people.
Many aerial shots of in and around Beijing included in the slide collection are also precise images of Beijing during the time. Given that the airways were strictly controlled by the Chinese Nationalist Government and private aeroplanes were not allowed at that time, the slides provide important documentation of the city. One aerial image depicts a view of the Forbidden City with part of the plane wing which has Chinese characters visible on it. In addition, the colours of the glass slides are a significant part of their aesthetic value as the images are in good condition and are very clear, sharp and vibrant in colour. The colours were chosen with artistic intention and hand-painted using fine brushes. A wide range of colour spectrum captured in Vargassoff's images is rarely found in coloured glass slides of the period.
By 1920, photography was established as a popular pastime and a profession. Given the difficulties of making pictures with early cameras, it is not surprising that the oldest photographs were mostly the work of professional photographers. Foreign travellers to Asian countries often purchased photographs taken by professional photographers, such as Vargassoff, during their visits.