Old Asia Photography

China - Macau Harbour

Ref: 01533

Dutton & Michaels

Rare image from this short-lived studio in Guangzhou (Canton). 

Sylvester Dutton (1824–1866) and Vincent Michaels (c.1832–1864)


When the professional photographers Sylvester Dutton and Vincent Michaels left San Francisco together for China in the spring of 1863, their friends and families could not have anticipated that both would be dead within three years.  Their early deaths have served to obscure the fact that they were both fine, experienced photographers who, in the short time they were in China, produced work of the highest merit.

It is probable that the pair were encouraged to go to China by Milton Miller, who would have known Dutton well, as they had both been born in Dummerston, Vermont and had worked together in San Francisco; Miller also had a portrait of Dutton in his personal carte de visite album.  Dutton and Michaels left San Francisco on the steamship Robert Lowe on 21st March 1863, arriving in Hong Kong on 17th April (passenger list, Overseas China Mail, 29th April 1863).  Around this time Miller returned to America, and it seems possible that some financial arrangement was made whereby Dutton and Michaels took over part of Miller’s business.  If so, it seems they contracted to purchase Miller’s Canton studio, rather than his Hong Kong operation. Dutton and Michaels moved on to Canton and operated there until their deaths.

By 1863 Dutton & Michaels had established their Canton studio.  We know this because several of their surviving photographs are signed by them ‘Dutton & Michaels’ and dated ‘1863’ in the negative.  At this time Canton was still a reasonably busy commercial port, with approximately 160 foreign residents and families, and although the Anglo-French military garrison had largely withdrawn, there was still no doubt a reasonable demand from the Western population for photographic services.  However, Dutton & Michaels’s business strategy was unexpectedly radical.  It seems they entered into a three-way partnership with a local man named Ting Shing, who may have been the Tin-Sing who operated a photographic studio in Hong Kong in the 1860s.  It must have been the Americans’ intention to try to break into the Chinese market, using as a partner someone with local knowledge and language.  After all, Miller seems to have met with success in photographing Cantonese officials and merchants and may well have recommended such a strategy.

Unfortunately, Michaels died on 31st July 1864 and the partnership was therefore dissolved. Sylvester Dutton continued as a sole trader, and the 1865 and 1866 editions of the Chronicle & Directory for China, Japan, Philippines etc. list him as a photographer at Honam, a large island opposite the old city of Canton. Losing his friend and business partner must have been a severe blow.  Worse was to follow since Dutton himself died on 16th July 1866.

Dutton & Michaels favoured signing and dating their photographs in the negative and invariably produced large-format prints typically measuring 14½ x 10¾ inches (37 x 27.5 cm).  This was rather large for the leaves of most contemporary photograph albums and prior to mounting, therefore, the prints were often trimmed, resulting in the loss of the photographers’ names (generally placed by them near the lower edge) and any certainty of attribution.  This means that it is now extremely difficult to establish the true extent of their work, which is especially regrettable because those prints that have survived with their signature clearly demonstrate that Dutton and Michaels were capable of very fine work.  Dutton and Michaels deserve greater recognition.

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