Magnus Bartlett published some of the first guide books to Chinese cities following the country’s opening up in 1978, and has been returning ever since. He believes documenting China is as vital today as it was then
20 April 2018 | Thomas Bird | South China Morning Post
Hong Kong photographer’s 40 years shooting a changing China, and why it’s more important than ever to dispel West’s ignorance
Born in the wind: My mother, Elizabeth, was from a Scottish shipbuilding dynasty that began in 1750. The Alexander Stephen and Sons Shipyard on the River Clyde prospered building tea clippers – ironically perhaps, since I would end up in Hong Kong – which evolved off the back of the tea trade.
To my grandparents’ dismay, their daughter married an artist, and worse, a Catholic. She met my father, Londoner Aelred Bartlett, at the Slade School of Fine Art, in London.
I was born in the middle of the maelstrom of the second world war in a house that overlooked Scapa Flow (in Scotland’s Orkney Islands). Last year, after an absence of almost 74 years, I returned to the Orkneys and had a wonderful three days visiting the 5,000-year old Neolithic sites, which make the islands a Unesco treasure chest.
It would be hard to find a more romantic location to enter the world, far from the densely populated London where I was brought up. To this day I feel a sense of deep security when I experience a big wind; that’s one of the reasons I love living in Hong Kong, and on an island no less.
Bartlett has been photographing China since the 1970s. Picture: Antony Dickson
Getting in the swing: Both my father and mother drew and painted. Our house in London was filled with paintings, drawings and antiques. It was a great ambience to grow up in, on the outer periphery of the Bloomsbury circle. But, perhaps more importantly, both my father and my uncle, Francis Bartlett, were huge film fans. Uncle Francis was also an excellent amateur photographer.
What persuaded me to shoot pictures rather than paint or draw was that I could do neither; my parents despaired of my stick men efforts. The camera solved that problem neatly, and when Francis gave me a lovely early-model Leica it was a no-brainer.
I left school as soon as I could and went to work for J. Walter Thompson (the advertising agency) in Mayfair, slap bang in the heart of Swinging Sixties London. It was a great time to be young. I eventually found work with the “famous-for-being-difficult” John Hedgecoe, who photographed all of Henry Moore’s sculptures, as well as fashion, portraiture and stately homes.
He had studied at the Guildford School of Art, which, I believe, had the UK’s first photographic course. I had to work long hours in his darkroom; it was very demanding but a great apprenticeship. I started shooting pop bands at the weekends, and around 1964 I got into the London School of Film Technique (now the London Film School).
What persuaded me to shoot pictures rather than paint or draw was that I could do neither; my parents despaired of my stick men efforts. The camera solved that problem neatly
The art of photography?: After film school I set up a company called Foreshore Films with some friends to shoot three-minute pop films on 16mm, a precursor to video; a kind of precursor to MTV. It was fun but the nascent bands were short on funds and the documentaries I worked on likewise. The ’60s moved to an end in a blur with fatherhood at an imprudent 25 years of age.
In 1969, I went back to work for Hedgecoe, who was now running the Royal College of Art’s new Department of Photography. I taught photography at the RCA for four years, but was increasingly dismayed by my shortcomings, such as the struggle to teach postgraduates when I was no older than them, but also by an unease about the loose use of the word “art” in the context of “art photography”, which often felt so pretentious.
The Martini effect: I loved Japanese cinema so I applied for a sabbatical in Japan and, with a trunk full of cameras, made my way to Hong Kong in February 1974 and onwards to Yokohama, courtesy of Polish Ocean Lines.
I stayed in Japan until the end of 1974, when my sabbatical funds ran out. So I flew back to Hong Kong, did some advertising photography and earned enough to buy a ticket back to London in time for Christmas. But I immediately missed the awesome energy of the Far East. London felt terribly dreary, the ’60s now a distant memory, so I resigned my post at the RCA and returned to Hong Kong in July 1975.
Hong Kong was most welcoming to Brits and, indeed, to most energetic foreigners in those days. For me an ID card was easy, setting up a company straightforward, but, most of all, it won out over Japan because of what I call the “Martini effect” – 99.9 per cent Chinese with a 0.1 per cent admixture of gweilo; very intoxicating.
The covers of some of the guide books Bartlett worked on.
China calling: Initially I shot commercial subjects, but after securing an agent in New York I got some nice assignments from the US. My images made the cover of Fortune and The Sunday Times(magazines). Newsweek, Time and Life used my photos when mainland China began to open up.
Before that first China shoot, I remember going to Swindon in Lock Road (Tsim Sha Tsui) to buy a stack of books about China; confined to bed for a week with a timely infection I devoured them all, so when I walked over the border into a very, very sleepy Shenzhen I knew considerably more about our hosts and their long history and culture than the other 29 “tourists” in our railway carriage, who were mostly businesspeople recceing business possibilities.
I set out to publish books about China to inform when it was a terra incognita for most people, and now I return for that purpose, because I feel knowledge is paradoxically needed more now than in the early years of opening up
I instantly became fascinated with this new and, in many ways, untouched world and, with one of my commercial photography clients, put together a guide to Peking, which we released in 1979. Back then there was no competition, and hence it enjoyed robust sales not only in the USA but everywhere we could place it in those pre-Amazon days.
In the 1980s, we went on to publish guides to Shanghai and Canton, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Yunnan, Fujian, Guizhou and the Silk Road.
Flying high: In 1982, we incorporated Airphoto International and almost immediately published Over Hong Kong, a photographic book that captures this amazing city from the air. We have just published volume nine to mark our 35th anniversary, photos spanning well over 35 years.
Bartlett with his book Over Hong Kong in 1987, which contains aerial views of the territory.
It is astonishing how much Hong Kong has changed and even more so with regards to Shenzhen, seen in the background in a number of photos. For this volume, for the first time, we are supplementing satellite and helicopter images with drone photography.
China was perceived as weak and of little account. Now it’s a powerhouse but the West remains deeply unaware of the culture, wonders and exceptional potential of this vast new yet ancient place
Facing the future: I’m looking north of the border at the Pearl River Delta, now increasingly referred to as the Greater Bay Area. I set out to publish books about China to inform when it was a terra incognita for most people, and now I return for that purpose, because I feel knowledge is paradoxically needed more now than in the early years of opening up.
That was a time when China was perceived as weak and of little account. Now it’s a powerhouse, but the West remains deeply unaware of the culture, wonders and exceptional potential of this vast, new yet ancient place.
I think there is a far greater awareness in China, at the highest levels, of the existential problems we face globally than there is in the USA, and whatever we feel about current political directions, leadership that “gets it”, particularly with respect to those immense environmental challenges, is to be respected.
The 35th anniversary edition of Over Hong Kong is available in bookshops.