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Rare photographs taken in Siam more than 150 years ago by John Thomson goes on display in Chester Beatty
Panorama of the Chao Phraya River and Rattanakosin Island from Wat Arun by John Thomson, 1865-66. Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

DUBLIN.- Considered a pioneer of photojournalism, and one of the most influential photographers of the 19th century, John Thomson was the first known photographer to document the people and landscape of Siam and China for publication and dissemination to the Western world.

The range, depth and quality of Thomson's photographic vision mark him out as one of history's most important travel photographers.

Born in Edinburgh in 1837, Thomson travelled to Asia in 1862. Over the next ten years he undertook numerous journeys across the region, spending almost a year in the kingdom of Siam (modern Thailand) where he was granted unique access to the court of King Mongkut (r. 1851-68). The photographs Thomson took in Siam include portraits and palace scenes, religious ceremonies, architecture and cityscapes. Thomson also received permission to visit Angkor Wat (then under Siam's control), becoming the first to photograph its famous ruins.

On his return to Britain in 1872, Thomson brought with him more than 600 glass plate negatives: a unique archive of images now preserved at the Wellcome Library, London. Featuring twenty-four compelling images, Siam through the lens of John Thomson, 1865-66 introduces the sights and people of mid-19th-century Thailand as witnessed by his camera.

Siam through the lens of John Thomson, 1865–66 is part of a travelling exhibition curated by Betty Yao MBE and Narisa Chakrabongse, great-great-granddaughter of King Rama IV, who is depicted in several John Thomson photographs.

The design concept for the exhibition takes its inspiration from both traditional Siam and modern-day Thailand. The photos are over 150 years old and yet have a contemporary feel. The exhibition aims to capture this duality. The main exhibition colour is a vibrant orange, suggesting both the colour of Buddhist monks' robes as well as current youth fashion.

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