During his plant collecting expeditions to Asia in the early 20th century, famed Arboretum plant explorer Ernest Henry Wilson kept a daily diary of his activities in the field. He was a keen observer of the people he met, the places he visited, and the many plants he both collected and photographed. His diary entries often reference and illuminate specific plants and photographs he captured, as happened one day in Songpan, Sichuan Province, China (formerly transliterated Sungpan). As is often the case, Wilson’s thoughts as recorded in his diary provide all we need to bring an image like this to life.

Two friends in Songpen, photograph by Ernest Henry Wilson, August 1910.
Two friends in Songpen, photograph by Ernest Henry Wilson, August 1910. Arnold Arboretum Archives

It was August 1910, and Wilson had returned to Songpan after an absence of six years. He had visited twice before, in 1903 and 1904, on a trip for the Veitch Nursery Company of his native England. As he had on his 1907-09 expedition to China for the Arboretum, Wilson was equipped with a top-of-the-line camera that created negatives on large format glass plates. On August 25, 1910, he captured a series of views of the town from the surrounding hills and images of other points of interest. That evening, Wilson was visited by a local Tibetan man whom he had met on a previous trip to Songpan, who had brought a friend along to meet Wilson. They asked to be photographed, and Wilson accepted.

The photograph he created that day is a deeply touching and respectful portrait of friends. Both men face the camera with self-assurance. They are relaxed and the taller man has turned slightly towards his friend, inclining his head. His hand is on his friend’s back, perhaps as an encouragement to approach the photographer. A slight twinkle in his eye has been captured for the ages. Without the record of the meeting in Wilson’s field diary, we would never know the backstory to this beautiful image.

For over a century the Arnold Arboretum has carefully preserved and stewarded Wilson’s diaries, photographs, and other materials related to his global expeditions in the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum. Many of his handwritten documents—including the 1910 diary recounting his visit to Songpen and the creation of this photograph—have been transcribed digitally with crowd-sourcing assistance coordinated through the web tool FromThePage.