PHOTOGRAPHY IN JAPAN BOOK REVIEW BY Raoul Endres
For this guest article Raoul Endres who will also have a rather unique “In Your Bag” next week. This week he offers something different with a book review, “Photography in Japan.” I am quite the fan of Tuttle publishing, for those not familiar they are akin to the Japanese Penguin in terms of publishing. They span everything from literature, aesthetics, and apparently here… photography.
ISBN 978-4-8053-1311-4 (2006 edition, 2023 forthcoming)
Author Terry Bennett
Japan’s isolationist policy ended in 1853 with the arrival of Commodore Matthew C Perry in Tokyo Bay. Prior to this, only Dutch and Chinese traders were permitted via Nagasaki. The Americans forced Japan into the Kanagawa Treaty, ending the shogunate era. This opened the way for wester trade, exploration and commercial operations within Japan.
At the same time, photography was becoming a viable medium, initially via the complicated and slow Daguerreotype process, but quickly supplanted with Frederick Scott Archers’ Wet Plate Collodion process (1851).
Photography in Japan 1853-1912 by Terry Bennett
“This book considers the photographers, Japanese and Western, who were involved in the early development of photography in Japan. The photographs that have survived from the late Edo period to the end of the Meiji era tell us much about Japanese photo-history and Japan itself.”
Terry Bennett has been collecting nineteenth century Japanese photography since the 1980’s. Bennett brings to life not just the historical changes but also the characters that sought adventure in a land once so remote and mysterious to westerners. An odd assortment of characters pushed the boundaries to forge deeper into Japan, often as part of official diplomatic missions, to try to bring back images that could be printed and sold in albums to curious English and American audiences.
We see the clear progression from adventurer with makeshift equipment through to professionally trained and equipped studio photographers. In between, local Japanese obtain the skills, cameras and chemicals necessary to build their own commercial ventures. The book is broken into these progressive phases with each focusing on concise biographies and examples of photographers operating in Japan at that time.
Included are not just photographs but also advertisements for portrait studios, calling cards and cartoons from expat newspapers of the time.
Photography in Japan is a fascinating insight, not just into the development of photography, but how opportunists found (and failed) ways to exploit western desire to experience a foreign land. There are many parallels to modern photographers working commercially whilst pursuing artistic endeavors.
It is well worth the investment if you are interested in historic processes or Japanese history, although I would recommend background reading on the processes involved to gain a better understanding of the complexities involved with early photography, printing, and colorization.
A note on stereo
Bennet covers a period when the commercial development of photography popularised stereographs to provide an immersive experience. Stereo albumen prints were sold in collections, to be used with simple viewers. These feature throughout the book, and it is well worth obtaining a viewer to fully experience these slices of life in Edo/Meiji era Japan. Unfortunately, some of the stereographs are printed too large; there is a maximum size dictated by the distance between your pupils, further apart and the effect does not work.
Viewers are available online from Brian May’s (yes, that Brian May) London Stereo Museum. https://shop.londonstereo.com/OWL-B-ENV.html
Raoul likes to tinker with analogue photography, particularly wet plate collodion with his Tachihara. He prefers the physical medium to Instagram, but can be found on twitter @raoulendres