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Tuesday, 22 June 2010


Japanese photography and interactions with the west 

"They are a people so totally different from any other in the world, that in a year's residence you get less insight into their manners and customs than could be gained in six weeks into the habits of any other nation."
R Mountnoy Jephson, Our Life in Japan (1869)

Unidentified Photographer, Collotype C1890s

There is an image of old Japan that westerners have never shaken off. It involves delicate and highly ritualized behaviour, sipping tea or eating a bowl of rice with a pair of wooden chopsticks, in a sparely furnished room. The atmosphere is of simplicity amidst calm, punctuated by minimalist sounds like the chime of distant bells or the dripping of water on stone. The image is timeless, suggesting rites that had been going on for centuries. Never mind that in the 19th century Japan was class bound and militaristic, or that the arrival of westerners would rip apart traditions as though they were paper screens; as much as Europeans mystified the culture the Japanese embraced this idealized view.

Unidentified photographer, albumen print, C1880s

The hand colouring of photographic prints has such a strong association with Japan it’s forgivable to assume that Japanese studios hit upon the idea on their own. Historians however credit its introduction to one Charles Parker and then its popularity to Felice Beato during the 1860s. Both of them were inspired by Japanese water-colourists so the concept was not completely foreign to the Japanese photographers. It’s also generally recognized that the coloured images that Japanese studios churned out in the 19th century, of Samurais and Geishas, rickshaw drivers and Buddhist monks, were for European consumption. Philbert Ono found records from the Japan Trade Bureau indicating that in 1897 over 24 000 photographs were exported to the US and 20 000 to Europe. All of them were images of Japanese exotica, most would have been hand coloured.

K Yamamura, Yokohama, Cabinet card, C1870s

If Japanese photographers didn’t regard the production of stereotypes as belittling, neither it seems did they treat westerners dressing in Japanese garments and posing for a tea ceremony with suspicion. What appears on the surface to be a pitfall of exploitation is much more a straightforward business transaction, with culture merely a bargaining chip. Meiji Emperor Mutsuhito encouraged western dress and there are stories of westerners arriving in Japan in the 1890s to discover, to their disappointment, the citizens happily wandering about in European clothes. Meanwhile the kimono, Japanese prints, Japanese gardens, porcelain, even Zen were taking on European forms. Frank Lloyd Wright looked to Japan for inspiration, so did Matisse and the Bauhaus travelled east. All that was before we got the Nikon, Sony and the Honda.

Unidentified photographer, possibly at a World Fair in Europe, C1920s

This willingness of the Japanese to appropriate western attitudes to the Orient holds a secret to the country’s economic success in the 20th century. Happy to provide an image of itself that was outdated and irrelevant, Japan went better, reinforced and then adapted it. By the 1970s Japanese design was about the coolest thing on the planet. By the 1990s Tokyo made New York look tired and stale. If we gave the Japanese the hand coloured print. they sold it back to us, and a whole lot more besides.

Rickshaw drivers, hand coloured silver gelatin print, C1930s
Nippon Theatre, hand coloured souvenir photo C1950s
Royal Palace, Tokyo, hand coloured souvenir photo C1950s
Mt Fuji in the distance, C1950s 

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