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Imagining Japan: Early Japanese Photography

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Ronin Gallery
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August 20, 2015 at 6:46:20 PM PDT August 20, 2015 at 6:46:20 PM PDTth, August 20, 2015 at 6:46:20 PM PDT

The history of photography in Japan begins during the Edo period. Introduced through the Dutch merchants that inhabited Dejima Island in Nagasaki Bay, the medium attracted an initially small, but intrigued audience. Many early Japanese photographers traveled to Nagasaki to study the photographic process. In 1854, Kawamoto Komin published Ensei-Kikijutsu, the first Japanese-language book on 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.

Unknown, Nagasaki Harbor, c. 1890-1910, albumen print, Ronin Gallery.

The early daguerreotype technique produced a single image, a direct positive made in a camera on a copper plate that resembles a mirror. The surface of the image was very fragile and could be rubbed off. Yet, this delicate technology was soon replaced by wet collodion methods, which proved to be more efficient in time and reproductive nature. In this technique, photographic material was coated with a light sensitive material, exposed to the light, and developed within a couple minutes—all while submerged in water. This technique allowed the photographer to make an unlimited number of prints and challenged the woodblock print as the most efficient means of image reproduction. By the beginning of the Meiji period, photography took off as a commercial industry in Japan.

Unknown, Cherry Blossoms by Shrine, c. 1890-1910, hand-colored albumen print, Ronin Gallery.

As the Meiji government eased travel restrictions on foreigners in the late 1800's, tourists began to flock to Japan. Photographs became popular, portable souvenirs. Yet, these images often spoke more to the ideals of the travelers than their destination. Many foreign tourists were more interested in perceived ideas of traditional Japanese culture than the Japanese society that was transforming and modernizing before their eyes. For many tourists, Japan promised an escape from modern industrial society. They were most attracted to photographs of Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms, temples, shrines, samurai, and geisha, regardless of whether the scene presented a reality or a fantasy.

Unknown, Dance Lesson, c. 1880-1900, hand-colored albumen print, Ronin Gallery.

As the largest market for these souvenir photographs grew in Yokohama, Japanese tourist photography came to be known as Yokohama shashin, or Yokohama-style photography. These images tended to be hand-colored, decorative, and often staged. Photography studios would often mount these images in albums that contained anywhere from 25 to 100 prints. The subject matter would be divided into three categories: customs and types; women; and famous places and views. Tourists also had the option to 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.

View of Yokohama, c. 1880-1910, hand-colored albumen print, Ronin Gallery.

Early Pioneers of Photography in Japan

Ueno Hikoma and Shimooka Renjo were two of the first professional Japanese photographers. Both set up business in 1862. Ueno Hikoma was considered the master of portrait photography in mid-nineteenth-century Japan and his studio prices were known to be very high. Shimooka had a hard time mastering photography, and soon grew tired of the competitive field.

unknown, Samisen, c. 1880-1910, hand-colored albumen print, Ronin Gallery.

The Italian-British Felice Beato was considered the premier photographer in Japan from the 1860s to 1870s. Formerly a war photojournalist, Beato joined his friend in Japan and the pair opened a photo studio in Yokohama. Their aim was to commercialize "that great novelty, Japonisme" for Western viewers. While in Japan, Beato created an extensive portfolio of Japanese subjects, classifying people into types: warriors, farmers, artisans, courtesans, street performers, and priests. He played a influential role in introducing painting techniques to print makers, and is credited with creating the first hand-colored photographs in Japan. Working closely with talented Japanese painters, Beato was able to create sophisticated hand-colored prints. However, the painting of a photograph using traditional Japanese pigments was time consuming. The process often took more than a day, using a single haired brushes for fine details.

Felice Beato, Pipe Seller, late 1800s, hand-colored albumen print, Ronin Gallery.

Austrian photographer Baron Raimund von Stillfried was another pioneer of studio photography in Japan. Opening his studio in 1875, he later bought Felice Beato's Yokohama studio as well. Marketing to foreign tourists, Stillfried helped shape the late 19th century perception of Japanese society through his souvenir images.

Unknown, The Torii of Chugu Shrine by Lake Chuzenji and Mt. Nantai, late 1800s, hand-colored albumen print, Ronin Gallery.

Uchida Kuichi is most famous for his photographs of the Meiji Emperor. This was the first time an image of the emperor was so widely disseminated among the Japanese public. His photographs were called goshin-ei , or imperial portraits, and were used as the official public images of the Emperor.

After the Meiji Restoration, photographs became more popular than woodblock prints. With the great decrease in production, many print shop artists were out of work. However, their fine technical skills were transferable to the hand coloring of photographs. Painters would apply the color using water-soluble pigments mixed with glue that were more transparent than the oil paints used in the West. By the end of the 19th century, colorists achieved more vivid hues through the incorporation of artificial aniline dyes. The process of coloring a photograph was time consuming and an expert could only complete two or three prints in a twelve-hour work day. Soon, studios began to streamline the coloring process, where each colorist would specialize in a specific area of color, passing the photograph to another colorist after completing his section. By the 1890s, successful studios regularly employed anywhere from 20 to 100 colorists.

Unknown, Rickshaw, c.1880-1910, hand-colored albumen print, Ronin Gallery.

It is difficult to identify the work of these early photographers because studios did not include credits in souvenir albums that featured numerous photographers. Many photographers bought the negatives of others and reproduced them as a part of their own portfolio. For example, the company of Stillfried and Anderson purchased Felice Beato's studio and stock in 1877, incorporating his negatives into their own. When attempting to make attributions, photographs with no credits are compared to the few that have attributions in an attempt to match them.