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Advancements in Japanese Photography from the Edo Period

The first introduction of photography to Japan started during the Edo period when Dutch merchants inhabited Nagasaki Bay. Many early Japanese photographers went to study in Nagasaki and in 1854 Kawamoto Komin published Ensei-Kikijutsu, the first book in Japanese about photographic techniques. Three years later, two Japanese photographers took the first successful photograph in Japan, a portrait of a Satsuma clan lord Shimazu Nariakira, using early daguerreotype processing.1 This process was was later replaced by wet collodion methods.2 At the beginning of the Meiji period with the promotion of Western modernity, photography in Japan began to take off as a commercial industry.


Illustration of foreign ships in Nagasaki Bay, where Dutch merchants inhabited and traded on Dejima, the small island pictured in the bottom center.

As the Meiji government eased travel restrictions on foreigners, tourists began to flock to Japan and photographs became popular souvenirs. But travelers were more interested in perceived ideas of traditional Japanese culture than the Japanese society that was transforming and modernizing. For many tourists, Japan was a way to escape modern industrial society, so they were most attracted to photographs of Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms, temples, shrines, samurai and geisha.

The largest market for these photographs was in Yokohama, so Japanese tourist photography became known as Yokohama shashin, or Yokohama-style photography. These images tended to be hand-colored and were very decorative. They were mounted in albums that contained anywhere from 25 to 100 prints. The subject matter was divided into three categories: customs and types; women; and famous places and views. Tourists could also visit a studio and choose images that most closely matched their travel experience. In 1872, an album of fifty hand-colored photographs from Baron Raimund von Stillfried’s studio cost about $48.


Yokohama Bay

The Ronin Gallery is pleased to present a glimpse into old Japan with an exhibition of Japanese photography featuring images of shrines, gardens and studio portraits from over 120 years ago. These photographs are hand colored albumen prints, paper based and printed with a negative plate – the popular processing medium of that time period.

1. Daguerrotype: First photographic process; image is a direct positive made in a camera on a copper plate that resembles a mirror. The surface is very fragile and can be rubbed off.

2. Wet Collodion Process: Replaced daguerreotype process. The photographic material is coated with a light sensitive material, exposed, and developed within a couple minutes; entire process had to be completed when wet. You can make an unlimited number of prints.