Newly released historic images

Originally published at Asian Correspondent on 11th February 2016

Over 180,000 images have recently been released into the public domain by the New York Public Library, including hundreds of historic images of Asia. The images, which include manuscripts, drawings, maps, postcards and photographs, are all available as high resolution downloads from the NY Public Library’s Digital Collections website.

As Shana Kimball, manager of the library’s public programs explains there are no restrictions on use for any of the 180,000 images, “No permission required, no hoops to jump through: just go forth and reuse!” allowing everyone the freedom to access, appreciate and reuse these fantastic materials.

The collection’s historic pictures of Asia, most of which date from the late 19th and early 20th Century, provide some fascinating insights to life in the region, and they capture many facets of life long gone as the region’s rapid urban development in the latter half of the 20th Century brought changes at an unprecedented rate.

Opium Smoking, The Man on the Left is Under the Influence of His Fourth or Fifth Pipe, The Other is Cooking a Pipeful of Opium Preparatory to Smoking it

Many of the photographs also include their original captions, which are often as revealing as the images themselves. An excellent example can be found in the picture above which captures an intoxicated opium smoker and carries the caption, ‘Opium Smoking: The man on the left is under the influence of his fourth or fifth pipe’. The caption suggesting the photographer had just spoken with the man, but been unable to ascertain a coherent answer due to his intoxicated state.

The newly released collection also includes a comprehensive array of carefully documented images of Asian tribes’ people, covering tribes that span across Asia, from Afghanistan to Vietnam. The photos above are of Singpho warrior from the Southern Frontier of Assam (Laos) and Hill Tribes from Northern Siam.

A selection of exceptionally high quality pictures from Shanghai bring the ‘City on the Sea’ to life as it was in the late 19th Century. The photographs capture a wide variety to life in the bustling trading city, with the images above showing two affluent Chinese women being transported in a barrow carriage and two common criminals being punished by ‘light cangue’.

Photographs of Asia’s harbours and regional trading centers, such as Hong Kong, Kobe, Shanghai, Busan, Singapore and Bangkok reveal what life was like in these cities long before they became the mega cities of the 21st Century.

Main street, Fusan.


Historic portrait pictures in the collection also provide glimpses of life in 19th Century Asia. The picture of a westerner in Asian attire carries the caption, ‘Portrait of a European (?) man in Eastern dress.’ The question mark perhaps questioning whether in fact the individual is European, or instead questioning whether an individual dressed in this manner can still be considered European.

Tiger caught and killed in a trap..jpg

One of the most striking pictures from the collection shows a recently caught adult tiger being carried out from the jungle by four barefooted Indonesian villagers, a far cry from today’s ‘trophy hunters’ who hunt endangered animals with GPS, night vision and long range sniper rifles.

The New York Public Library also provides a number of editing resources, including NYPL Labs, which is intended for artists, designers and journalists to make creative uses of the digital collections, well worth checking out if you’re feeling creative.

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