Lum, Sylvester Key in Publication of Lost Photos

Ray Lum, Asian Bibliographer/Librarian for the Western Languages Collection at Harvard-Yenching and Widener libraries, and Stephen Sylvester, Photographer, HCL Imaging Services, at the Hedda Morrison Hong Kong photo exhibition.

December 16, 2005 - Long-lost photos tend to convey nostalgia, historical photos a certain gravity. So what about lost negatives from 1940s Hong Kong, never printed, reflecting a Hong Kong that vanished decades ago? Harvard-Yenching recently found such negatives hidden among its collections and taken, no less, by documentary photographer Hedda Morrison. Given a lack of professional photos from this place and time, the prints are particularly meaningful for modernized Hong Kong itself and for scholars. Through the perseverance of HCL staff and a Hong Kong researcher, they now comprise a valuable piece of history in the book Hedda Morrison’s Hong Kong (2005, Hong Kong University Press).

Perhaps best known for her photographs of China, Morrison arrived in Hong Kong in late 1946. During her six-month visit, she captured black-and-white images of everyday life in the colony—crowded markets with people in traditional dress, fishermen, children caring for siblings. Within a few years of Morrison’s visit, that particular vision of Hong Kong would be lost to postwar modernization. But Morrison never found a publisher for her 500 or so Hong Kong pictures, and so never printed the vast majority of the negatives. She died in 1991, bequeathing 15,000 of her photos and negatives to the Harvard-Yenching Library, the Hong Kong lot among them. But poor organization on Morrison’s part, and the large collection of materials, obscured the latter.

Enter Edward Stokes, Ray Lum, and Stephen Sylvester. Stokes is a writer and photographer living in Hong Kong, Lum is Asian Bibliographer/ Librarian for the Western Languages Collection at Harvard-Yenching and Widener libraries, and Sylvester is a photographer in Harvard College Library Imaging Services. Their combined efforts, persistence, and expertise would bring Morrison’s negatives back into the light, although it would take some years.

In 1995 Stokes stumbled across an old government report at the University of Hong Kong Libraries that featured 27 Hong Kong photos circa 1946 credited to Hedda Morrison. As executive director of the Hongkong Conservation Photography Foundation (HKCP), Stokes took it upon himself to discover if Morrison had more than these few pictures. According to Stokes, the colony was not photographed in great detail from the 1930s to the early 1950s, certainly not by another photographer of Morrison’s ability. Yet the 1940s in particular saw great change in the colony when the British arrived late in the decade to help with postwar rebuilding. The historical significance of Morrison’s shots was not lost on Stokes.

Stokes’s search for Morrison’s negatives eventually led him to Harvard and to Lum. Harvard-Yenching had no cataloged record of any Hong Kong work, but assurances from Morrison’s widower, Alaistair, that Harvard-Yenching should have the negatives kept Lum searching. And when the negatives did turn up, accompanied by a few sample prints, their historical value became apparent. Even for those who know it well, the Hong Kong frozen in Morrison’s photos is barely recognizable.

Stokes proposed that HKCP and Harvard-Yenching Library, in partnership with the Hong Kong University Press, collaborate on a book and exhibition. Harvard would supply the prints and Stokes would write the essays that would give the photos context. Because the negatives couldn’t leave Harvard, Sylvester was enlisted to create prints, a challenge in and of itself since Morrison had printed so few. Sylvester couldn’t know how she would have wanted them printed, so he studied the composition of her China photos and relied on his own trained eye. The result? "Steve found things that nobody else saw," said Lum. "His work was incredible."

"It was nice being involved in this project because Morrison was such a renowned photographer," said Sylvester. "Stokes took the pictures back to Hong Kong and people got excited."

A year of intense work followed. Sylvester printed 350 of the images, more than 250 of which made it into the final book. He also painstakingly made 106 large-format photographs for the exhibition that accompanied the Hong Kong book launch. Sylvester credits Imaging Services, and especially fellow photographer Robert Zinck, for helping him decide how to crop and print the photographs, while trying to remain true to Morrison’s vision. Imaging Technician Meghan Keil also played a key role, assisting in making the prints.

"I’m very pleased," says Sylvester of the final book. "I didn’t anticipate the sophistication of the design."

Lum continued to play a significant role in the book’s publication, contributing the foreword and editing all of Stokes’s essays via email over a period of many months. "It’s quite substantial," says Lum of the finished product, which is written in both English and Chinese to make it accessible to a broader audience. "It’s really a work of history as much as art."

The book was published to much fanfare in Hong Kong, and Lum and Sylvester spent 10 days there earlier this fall, attending the book launch and numerous related functions. Just a few stops on their heavily scheduled itinerary were the photo exhibition at the University of Hong Kong’s University Museum and Art Gallery, and at the exclusive Hong Kong Club, Royal Asiatic Society, and Hong Kong Maritime Museum . The book generated a great deal of media interest, and Lum and Sylvester found themselves the focus of a number of radio, newspaper, and magazine features.

With publication finished, the next step for Harvard-Yenching Library is to make the photographs, including those that didn’t make the book, available online through Harvard’s VIA (Visual Information Access) catalog. To do so, Sylvester must first finish making prints from the remaining negatives. These will be scanned and then prepared for online use beginning in 2006. After decades in obscurity, the Hedda Morrison Hong Kong collection will be more easily accessible to researchers online than Morrison herself could have imagined when she took the photographs some 60 years ago.

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