Moments Past: Meiji Era Photography

Moments Past: Meiji Era Photography View Works

For over 200 years Japan was a mysteriously secluded island. With the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854, Japan reopened her doors to the world and the influx of foreigners rapidly increased. Specific arts rose to greet the interests of these visitors, and the medium of photography offered a particular, compelling view of Japan that was mobile and unique. Photographers relied on traditional pictorial subjects ranging from studio photography of beautiful women, to depictions of cherry blossoms and temples, as well as urban scenes of shopkeepers, rickshaws, and peddlers. The Ronin Gallery is pleased to open up our own portal into the world of Old Japan with our exhibition of Meiji Era Photography. All of the photographs are hand-colored albumen prints.

Albumen Prints: These photographs are hand colored albumen prints. Albumen prints are paper based and printed with negative plate. They were the first true commercial photographing printing processes. It was the dominant form of photography until the turn of the 20th century. The images faded easily and sometimes lost detail. The paper was so thin that many times the images had to be mounted.

Hand Colored Albumen Photographs: After the Meiji Restoration, photographs became almost as popular as woodblock prints as the technical skill of the Japanese woodblock printers were capable of elevating hand coloring of photographs above what had been achieved in Europe. Artists would apply the color using water-soluble pigments that were more transparent than the oil paints used in the West. The paint was mixed with a small amount of glue. The process of coloring a photograph was so time consuming an artist could only complete two or three prints in a twelve-hour day. Soon, however, 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, a successful studio regularly employed anywhere from 20 to 100 colorists.

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