Tom Hutchins

Working Party on Railway Water Channel in Desert, Yumen, China, 1956

gelatin silver print
191mm x 211mm

signed Tom Hutchins and [R21-8: WORKING PARTY ON RAILWAY WATER CHANNEL IN DESRT, YUMEN, CHINA, 1956] in graphite verso


Private collection, Auckland.


Tom Hutchins, critic, educator and journalist, is an important figure in the history of New Zealand photography practice and teaching, though his work is only now gaining broade...

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Estimate $400 - $700
Achieved $480.50

Tom Hutchins

Coolies pulling a cart past a government's Buick car, Peking (Beijing), China, 1956


gelatin silver print

signed Tom Hutchins and inscribed ‘COOLIES PULLING A CART PAST A GOVERMENT’S BUICK CAR, PEKING, CHINA, 1956’ and C160/22 in graphite verso

155mm x 235mm

Auction N˚5

Estimate $400 - $700

Achieved $480.50


1.   John B. Turner, Tom Hutchins Seen in China 1956, or, Photoforum 86 (Auckland/Beijing: Photoforum, 2016) was published on the occasion of the international debut of the exhibition Tom Hutchins Seen in China 1956 as part of the 2016 Pingyao International Photography Festival in Shanxi, China. An online gallery with a growing selection of Hutchins’ China photographs is available at

2.   “Tom Hutchins Interviewed by Terry O’Connor,” Photoforum Supplement, ed. John B. Turner, Summer 1977-78, 19. Noted at the end of the interview is that it took place in 1975, two years before publication.

3.   “Red China on the March,” Life, Vol. 42, No. 3. 21 January 1957, 107-115.

4.   “Tom Hutchins Interviewed,” 18.

5.   ibid., 19.

6.   Turner, 5; see also John B. Turner “Tom Hutchins in China, 1956,” Art New Zealand 160, Summer 2016-17, 110-115.

7.   “Tom Hutchins Interviewed,” 19.

Personal Contact: Tom Hutchins in China

by Frances Clark

Tom Hutchins, critic, educator and journalist, is an important figure in the history of New Zealand photography practice and teaching, though his work is only now gaining broader recognition. Lanchow, China 1956; Wheat Harvesting on ‘Red Star’ Farm, Peking, China, 1956; Working Party on Railway Water Channel in Desert, Yumen, China 1956; and Coolies Pulling a Cart Past Government Buick Car, Peking, China, 1956, all signed by and printed under the supervision of Hutchins in the early 2000s, are from a much larger body of work consisting of the thousands of photographs that Hutchins took during a four-month journey through China in the summer of 1956. Although China was at the time in a period of tentative opening-up, Americans remained unable to gain entry, and even for a New Zealander—a supposedly permissible variety of Westerner—getting a visa was difficult and far from guaranteed. When Hutchins eventually was issued a visa and crossed from Hong Kong into China in May 1956, he became the first Western photojournalist since Cartier-Bresson to visit China and do significant work there.

Despite the merit and timeliness of Hutchins’ 1956 China work, it has remained hidden for decades. Hutchins’ friend and former colleague at the University of Auckland, John B. Turner, has been coordinating efforts to print, research and show Hutchins’ China images for almost thirty years, and last year was able to arrange for the work to be publicly exhibited for the first time.¹ Turner’s efforts in bringing these images to light constitute the first substantive opportunity for a broader public to see the photographs since Life magazine published a selection of them in 1957.

According to Hutchins, in a 1975 interview with Terry O’Connor, Life magazine’s interest in the work was focused primarily on three areas: industrial development, agricultural development, and development into “new areas” further inland, westward.² This focus can be seen in the images selected for publication in January of 1957 and in the copy, which was supplied by Life’s own writers. The magazine’s cover heralds Hutchins’ work as “‘Off Limits’ China—Exclusive Pictures of Red Industry” and the text introducing Hutchins’ photo essay oscillates between condescension and fear: China is both a place where “Everywhere are serious people, harnessed to work and norms and slogans” and yet also somewhere engaged in a “desperate but impressive effort to make itself modern.”³ Hutchins, again in conversation with Terry O’Connor, commented that the fate of the photojournalist was that of “gradually having to reconcile yourself to the fact that you weren’t in control of the magazines.”Life’s approach to Hutchins’ China work was, sadly, no exception.

The image chosen for the first page of the Life piece, from the same series as Working Party on Railway Water Channel in Desert, suits Life’s characterization of China as consisting of people “harnessed to work” under a slogan, and speaks to the interests Hutchins enumerates: it is an image of the development of industry, and of the expansion westward. In this series of images, two men labour to construct irrigation along a railway line in the desert, moving dirt by loading it into baskets and dumping it amid clouds of dust, while a train sits in the background and a flag (conveniently tied to a nearby telegraph pole) flies above them. There certainly was an aspect of truth in Life’s characterisation of the work, even if it was only partial: these images show two men toiling to construct the infrastructure for westward expansion and modernisation, and doing so literally under a flag emblazoned with a slogan imploring the youth of the nation to “dedicate themselves and their best years to the motherland.” And, leaving Life’s condescending tone aside, much of Hutchins’ work does record dramatic but selective technological modernisation. The two men pulling an unseen load in Coolies do so wearing cloth collars and layered cotton slip-on shoes indistinguishable from those of earlier decades or even centuries, while behind the men is a spectacular, shining government Buick, a relic of an earlier period of modernisation, leftover from pre-war trade with the United States. Similarly, the Hungarian-made wheat harvester in the photographs taken on Red Star farm is both impressive and grounded by the reality that most of Hutchins’ images of rural people working would feature no such machinery, or would, like this one, include at least some people whose work seemed largely unchanged by the presence of this prized token of industrialised farming.

Beyond what Life was looking for, Hutchins brought to his work a determination to find a personal vision of a people who were at that time, if represented at all in Western media, presented mostly as an exotic, vaguely threatening mass. Within and alongside images of steel workers, coal miners, and farmers, Hutchins brought to his subjects an interest and “identification” with Chinese people, which he explained as coming partly from the fact that as a working-class kid growing up in central Auckland, many people he knew and socialised with were Chinese.As well as this “long personal contact” with Chinese New Zealanders, his open and balanced approach seems to have been informed by his socialist values, his interest in people, and his willingness, later tempered by what he learned of the repressions and violence of subsequent decades,6 to see in China not a looming Communist menace but a place with “the beginning of a communal spirit and a communal feeling.”7 This communal feeling was something that Hutchins was able to capture not just in the images of people at work, but in a variety of other modes as well: elderly men banding together around chess games, children at play, crowds admiring shop windows, people chatting in the streets and waiting on crowded railway platforms.

The last of the images included here, Lanchow, [Lanzhou] China, 1956, offers an example of this personal vision and contact, while at the same time being part of the broader historical story. Although it might be grouped into the third of Life’s three areas of interest, that of westward expansion, it seems reductive to describe it so. A group of young women, clothed in variously patterned short-sleeved shirts and matching light-coloured pants and basketball trainers, stride two-abreast down a town street, some of them looking directly at Hutchins’ camera, others more engaged in talking with each other. The women are led by a particularly cheery-looking lady in pigtail buns, sweatpants and a sweatshirt that reads in hand-written-style traditional Chinese characters “Xinjiang Post Office 19” and an upper line of text that looks to be written in Uyghur. Behind the women, a shop sign declares itself a seller of men’s and women’s clothing, a cyclist hovers, and a man tends to his wares in two giant baskets by the kerb-side. As much as the image could be linked to historical trends of westward expansion and social change, its primary appeal to me remains in its human engagement, the feeling of open “personal contact” and shared communal feeling which Hutchins was able to make and record at such an unlikely time and in a then unlikely-seeming place.