Lai Afong – one of the most prolific Chinese photographers of his era
Lai Afong (黎芳 or 賴阿芳, c. 1838 or 1839 – 1890) is considered to be a pre-eminent nineteenth-century Chinese photographer and the founder of the most successful photographic studio in the late Qing Dynasty.
Lai Afong’s subjects ranged from portraits and social life pictures to cityscapes and landscapes. His photographic compositions showcase the technical and aesthetic influence of traditional Chinese painting- guóhuà.
Lai Afong was the most successful of his generation of Chinese photographers in appealing to both a Chinese and foreign cosmopolitan clientele. He advertised in English-language newspapers – offering a “Larger and complete collection of Views than any other Establishment in the Empire of China” – and the artist captioned much of his work in Chinese and English. Afong Studio photographs were sold to Chinese patrons– local to Hong Kong and those visiting from other parts of China – and foreign visitors to China.
The Afong Studio even became a destination and training ground for foreign photographers in the region, and photographers such as Emil Rusfeldt and D.K. Griffith began their careers under the tutelage of Lai Afong. In 1875, Griffith claimed that his mentor had “entered the arena of European art, associating his name with photography in its best form, and justly stands first of his countrymen in Hong Kong.” John Thomson, a Scottish photographer working in China at the time, praised Lai Afong’s images as “extremely well-executed, [and] remarkable for their artistic choice of position” in his book “The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China, and China.”