The photographs that Hedda Morrison took in China during her 13 year stay complement those of the many earlier foreign photographers who have contributed to the large body of images taken by Westerners in the period before the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Their photographs represent thin slices of space and time and together they function as a collective memory. Many of the photographs capture views of an era that no longer exists but which has been recorded on film and can be reassembled for future generations to discover.
This photograph is one of a collection of 349 silver gelatin prints that were made by Hedda Morrison as exhibition prints. They were donated to the Powerhouse Museum after her death in 1991. As a set of prints that were made by Hedda Morrison they are a highly significant collection.
Hedda Morrison (nee Hammer) was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1908. She studied photography in Munich between 1929 and 1931. From 1933 to 1938 she managed a German-owned commercial photographic studio in Peking, China. Hedda resided in China until 1946 and is renowned for her photographs of 'Old Peking'. After living in Sarawak for 20 years, she and her husband Alastair Morrison settled permanently in Canberra in 1967 where Hedda passed away in 1991. In 1992, Alastair Morrison donated a large collection (349) of Hedda Morrison's photographs to the museum.
The collection includes photographs taken in China (1933-1946), Sarawak (1947-1967), now a state of Malaysia, South Pacific Islands (1954), India (1951), and Australia (1967-1991). It documents Hedda Morrison's extraordinary life of travel from Germany through Asia to Australia. Hedda spent most of her working life in Asia, travelling extensively and photographing the landscape, customs, lifestyles, architecture, local traditions and craft practices of the people, cultures and environments she visited. Her striking, often poetic images, reveal details of everyday life seldom observed by transient visitors, and provide an invaluable account of traditional cultures experiencing development and change.
Gift of Alastair Morrison, 1992
Photograph, black and white silver gelatin print, 'Bidayuh woman splitting rattan with children, First Division, Sarawak', Malaysia, 1960s. The photograph shows a Bidayuh (Land Dayak) woman sitting in a doorway of a longhouse splitting long lengths of cane with a blade in preparation for basket weaving. Her mouth is stained black from chewing betel nut, a common pastime of both men and women. She is with two girls and wears brass leg bands, which are made by winding a continuous length of brass around the lower leg, a practice started when girls are young, though it is seldom seen today.
Photograph, black and white silver gelatin print, Long San, Ulu Baram, Sarawak, Malaysia, 1966, 'Kenyah Midwife and Health Assistant, proud in her neat uniform, demonstrates how to bathe the baby without plunging it into the river.' The photograph shows three women kneeling on the floor with one woman washing a baby in an enamel basin as a child looks on in the background. All the women have stretched earlobes and many earrings. These were associated with beauty and status; the longer the lobe was stretched, the higher the status. The earrings could be made out of brass, lead or wood, and were sometimes very heavy. A child would start to have her lobes stretched from the age of four or five months. This tradition is now seldom practiced.
Photo, black and white silver gelatin print, 'Child acrobat, Tianqiao, Peking', taken in China between 1933 and 1946. In this photograph, Morrison captures the routine of a child acrobat at a critical moment of contortion and control. Performances like this, where the boy performs an inverted pose with a tier of bowls balanced on his head, were held in Tianqiao in the Chinese city. Visitors and locals would ogle at freaks, animals, strong men and people performing extraordinary feats. The photograph is typical of many images of China created by Westerners in the 1800s, which emphasise the sensational and the bizarre. To their intended audiences, such images were at once entertaining, educational and shocking. They conveyed, with uncompromising directness, the exotic 'otherness' of Chinese society. It is interesting that the gaze of many of the onlookers is directed at the photographer, who, in their view, was probably more extraordinary than the child contortionist.
Photograph, black and white silver gelatin print, 'Rickshaw pullers, Peking' was taken in China between 1933 and 1946. The photograph shows how rickshaws were a standard means of conveyance during that time. It is one of Morrison's most striking photographs. The strong composition, created by the diagonal positioning of the rickshaws and shadows, is counterbalanced by the figures of the mother and child. Morrison's European training is evident in the tightly controlled birds-eye view, which has been framed to enhance the power of the image. By 1953, there were no rickshaws left in China.