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Poignant 'selfies' from a stranger

By Xu Xiaomin in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2017-06-24 07:09

Tong Bingxue, an old photo collector and researcher. [Photo by Tong Bingxue/For China Daily]

A photo collector offers a glimpse into the life of man through a collection of portraits that also shed light on the history of photography in China

Taking selfies may be considered a phenomenon of the new millennium, but a Chinese man named Ye Jinglyu (1881 to 1968) had actually been doing something similar since more than a century ago.

Ye had his first portrait shot in 1901 when he was in London working as a diplomatic staff of the Qing government. Since 1907, he started to take portrait every year. After his death, his family sold his portraits to a book collector. In 2007, 40 years after Ye died, they changed hands again when Tong Bingxue, an old photo collector and researcher, acquired them and uncovered their real value.

Tong decided to showcase 62 portraits of Ye, taken at various photo studios around the world, in an exhibition titled "Insight to Self", which is currently running at Shanghai Library.

"I named the exhibition 'Insight to Self' because these photos of Ye, just like a mirror, remind me to take a break and reflect, something that most people don't have time for in modern society. This portrait series is just a small part of my collection, but it has given me a lot to think about my own life," said Tong.

"My contact with Ye's grandson also found that Ye had kept a diary since his teenage years and it recorded his daily expenditure and bits of information about him and his wife. However, his family burned the diary during the 'cultural revolution (1966-76)'."

The collection has also been hailed by many in the photographic scene as a marvel to behold.

"Not many people in China are known to have done such a thing, to document his life through photos, and it is a miracle that these images are still so well-preserved after so many years. I think it is amazing. The album will leave a valuable mark in the history of Chinese photography," said Xu Haifeng, a senior photographer and visual department director of The Paper, a major news media in China.

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