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Photographic Views of Meiji: A Portrait of Old Japan

A strict policy of isolationism and non-interference was instituted by Japan's Shogun Tokugawa in the early 17th century, resulting in a medieval society locked in time. It was not until the overthrow of the Shogun and his Samurai by imperial forces in 1868 that Japan began to modernize. The reinstatement of full power to the Imperial court and fourteen year old Prince Mutsuhito initiated Japan's period of industrial growth. The title "Meiji." which means enlightened peace, was given to the new Emperor and his reign--a period which lasted forty-five years until his death in 1912. Click for a higher
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Unknown; Geisha in Winter
c.1880
The Meiji Restoration, as this period came to be known, was the beginning of great change in Japan. With the return of power to the young Emperor and the opening of Japan's seaports in 1854 to Commodore Perry and the American Navy, the Westernization of the country began to take hold. Emperor Meiji encouraged his people to study abroad and return with new ideas and technology. At the same time he invited experts from Europe and America to visit his country and bring with them important information which would assist in Japan's progress. Click
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Beato; Fencing practice
c.1870
The people of Japan, living in a society of extreme politeness and formality which regarded life as a series of ceremonial acts, showed little interest in Beato's black and white documentary photographs of landscapes, village and trades-people. In an effort to infuse photography with traditional Japanese aesthetics and to gain a greater acceptance for his work, Beato, who was familiar with both the long history of the Japanese colored woodblock prints and the practice of adding color highlights to photographs in Europe, decided to start hand coloring his albumen prints. Working with Wirgman, an accomplished watercolorist, they began selling their delicately tinted photographs. The Japanese people loved them at once, feeling that they were truly Japanese, as was a silk kimono, a painted fan, or a lacquer. They felt these prints were a perfect souvenir for western travelers who desired to collect the cultural and artistic objects of Japan.

 

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Beato; Shinto Priest
c.1870

Beato; Street Cart
c.1870

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Beato; Bettoes Resting
c.1870

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Beato; Japanese Woman
c.1870

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Beato; Geisha with Fan
c.1870

The popularity of these hand-colored images was so great that Beato hired Japanese artisans who traditional painted woodblock prints to subtly color his photographs. This time consuming process could take a meticulous painter as long as twelve hours to complete two or three prints. Later this tedious procedure was modified to a production line where several colorists each worked on a particular area of the photographs: one artist colored the faces, then passed it along to another who tinted the clothing. And so on increasing the output to as many as twenty or thirty prints a day.

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von Stillfried; Geisha
c.1880
Another important photographer of Meiji Japan was Austrian-born Baron Raimund von Stillfried. Von Stillfried was a painter who brought his European cultural and artistic background to photography. His work was psychological in character and offered a deeper insight into the lives and social classes of the people he photographed. The photograph he made, primarily in the studio, often incorporated plain backgrounds and a minimal number of props. In 1872 he opened a photography studio in competition with Beato's firm, and in 1877 von Stillfried purchased Beato's studio, along with his glass plate negatives and equipment.

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von Stillfried; Musician
c1880
While in Japan, Baron von Stillfried apprenticed Japanese assistants in his studio, many of whom later went on to continue the photographic style established by the Europeans. Kusakabe Kimbei was one of his special assistants who had a great talent for the art of photography. He worked closely with von Stillfried and in 1885 purchased most of his photographic stock. He operated his own studio in Yokohama from 1885 to 1912, where he produced portraits, scenes from daily life, and views of Japan. Often Kimkei's photographs were like theatrical sets in which he was the director. He selected the costumes, backgrounds and props, then carefully positioned the "actor" to reflect the polite social and religious ceremonies, rituals, and customs of the Japanese people.

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Kimbei; Shinto Priest
c.1885
The photographs of Beato, von Stillfried, Kimbei, and other photographers, many of who have remained anonymous, resembled the Japanese woodblock prints in content, style and coloring technique. Ukiyo-e prints, then the most popular art of Japan, represented the superficial, earthly life that passes quickly. The photographers of the Meiji period used the subjects of the earlier printmakers as models for their photographs, maintaining the Old World sensibilities of their Japanese customers while at the same time satisfying the western demand for pictures of classical Japan. They made portraits of Samurai warriors, street musicians, and tattooed grooms, not as individual personalities, but as stylized representations of social classes. They photographed the serene beauty and landscape of the country showing Mt.Fuji, Lake Hakone, simple teahouses and elaborate temples. The photographers idealized old Japan and ignored its transformation from an insular, medieval country to a modern land. This one -sided photographic view gave outsiders the misleading impression that Japan was a quaint, archaic nation well into the twentieth century.

 

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Kimbei; Washing hands
c.1885
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Kimbei; Girls showing Obi
c. 1885
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Kimbei; Geisha resting
c.1885

 

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Kimbei; Enoshima Island
c.1890

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Kimbei; Mt. Fujiyama
c.1885

The stylized genre photographs made in Japan during the later part of the nineteenth century are in some ways similar to ethnographic studies made of other "exotic" people; Chinese, Africans, Native Americans and other nationalities were all photographed as native "types" showing their own special features. However, the theatrical stage set-ups, use of props, and delicate hand tinting of the prints from the Meiji period give these photographs a distinctive character and elegance all their own, truly unique to Japan.

Richard W. Gadd

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Unknown; Performers
c.1880
Richard Gadd is the Director of the The Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, California.
The photographs are from his personal collection.

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