Johannes Schröder (1870- 1942) was a wealthy German merchant whose photography collection showcases his interest in art, travel, and contemporary lives of natives in Asia, Africa and North America at the turn of the twentieth century. Schröder became involved with anthroposophy after meeting its founder Rudolf Steiner in the dining car of the Orient Express on a journey to Paris. The two instantly became friends, and Steiner was particularly interested in Schröder’s knowledge of East Asia, from his travels and his merchant company in Shanghai. In 1913, upon consulting with Steiner, Schröder founded the trading company Ceres which supplied colonial goods and quality food near Lesum, and also became responsible for the Anthroposophical Society of Bremen.
The collection comprises ten albums containing over a thousand images and nearly three hundred images in loose sheets. It not only holds personal snapshot-style photographs taken by Schröder himself but also professional shots taken by the likes of Ueno Hikoma, Tamamura Kozaburo, Kusakabe Kimbei, Uchida Kuichi, Ogawa Kazumasa, Usui Shuzaburo, Suzuki Shin'ichi and Felice Beato, Thomas Child (China), Stillfried & Andersen (Japan), Samuel Bourne (India), Alfred Noak (Italy), Scowen & co (Sri Lanka) and The Zangaki brothers (Egypt), among others.
Schröder lived in Shanghai from 1899 to 1905, and repeatedly travelled back to China even after he went back to Berlin to take up a post at the Foreign Office. This accounts for the significant number of photographs of the declining Qing Empire in his collection, in particular those of the Boxer Rebellion, to which he was a witness. The photography in this part of the collection is very stark and honest to the reality of horrors. Depicting destroyed towns and villages from the rebellion and draughts, locals and soldiers being forced into camps, torture and death, all part of the reality of war. The imagery depicted here is of both sides of the opposition, and their story.
Other photographs capture scenes revealing the way of Chinese life. For example, in portraits of local ‘sing song girls’, the viewer can observe the latest fashions in Chinese clothing, and quite shockingly the bound feet of these local entertainers proudly on display. There are also several photographs of criminal punishment in China, most notably of convicted criminals wearing a cangue, a type of pillory worn to publicly humiliate the criminal as they stood in a prominent location, such as a marketplace, for the duration of the punishment and onlookers would jeer and occasionally throw food or waste at them.
Schröder was a globetrotter and a pioneer in utilising the invention of photography to document his time. His photographs not only allow us to relive his personal journey of discovery but are also extremely rare and precious records of the landscape, architecture, people and events of a bygone era.