19th-Century Japanese Photography

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Contemporary Works / Vintage Works, Ltd.

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Chalfont, Pennsylvania   18914   USA

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By Matt Damsker
Von Stillfried--Seated Geisha with Fan
Von Stillfried--Seated Geisha with Fan

Thanks in large measure to the Prussian East Asia Expedition of 1861-62, along with other government-funded journeys to the East, images of Japanese culture were brought to the Western world in all their formal splendor, and none of that imagery was more powerful than the first flowerings of photography in Japan. As Sebastian Dobson and his co-researchers chronicled in their definitive study of the Prussian expedition, "Under Eagle Eyes," 19th century Japanese photography was largely a matter of European masters of the medium discovering--and doing justice to--a deeply traditional new subject for their cameras.

Thus, this photo exhibit is rich in the works of such seminal photographers as Felice Beato and Baron Raymond von Stillfried, who captured dignified images of upper-class Japanese family life and portraits of the privileged, many of them hand-colored to bring a level of high-craft realism to their wet-plate albumen prints. In addition, the classic physicality of Sumo wrestlers and other touchstones of Japanese culture brought a kinetic charge to these early photographs, but the pedigreed work of Beato and his contemporaries don't tell the whole story.

That is because some of the most interesting of these exhibits are the anonymous ambrotypes that survive. Similar in subject matter to the attributed treasures, these images bear more wear-and-tear of time, but their muted, marked presence is rich in antique charm and compositional grace. In addition, the work of Japan's own early photographic masters, such as Uchida Kuichi, are excellent examples of the native artistry that would flourish as photography's European origin and techniques were quickly absorbed by enterprising Japanese aspirants.

Indeed, photography was an art form especially suited to the richly visual and carefully detailed dichotomies of 19th-century Japanese life, which balanced the rugged earthiness of the island's landscape with its peoples' great delicacy of design in architecture, clothing, and manufacturing. Japan's cultural complexity--in everything from class distinction to the subtleties of its ornamentation--is as much on display here as the impressive technique of these known and unknown photographers. If anything, these images convey the timelessness of many Japanese modes (the nation retains, after all, an everyday traditionalism that most other world cultures have sacrificed to modernity), and we can see it with utter clarity in these vintage prints.