Dawn in Japanese Photography (I. Kanto district)

by Stefan Chiarantano, Mar 15, 2007 | Destinations: Japan

The photo exhibit is well worth a visit to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photograph.  It provides a window to pre-modern Japan and documents a society on the verge of radical social change from feudal society to emerging modern nation state. Here on exhibit are visions of Tokugawa Japan from its illustrious daimyos to the common people.

The show is also a testament to the early foreign photographers who flocked to Japan and trained a number of Japanese apprentices in the art of photography.  These early photographers who photographed Japan included Felice Beato, Nadar, P. Rossier, and Iosef Antonovich Goshikevitch.

On display is Felice Beato's "Panoramic View of Edo from Mt. Adago", c1864, albumin print.  It's a scene of terraced roofs.  I found it haunting since his time in Japan co-incided with the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the return to power of the Emperor.

On another level, the show also documents the early stages of photographic processing from the daguerrotype to ambrotype (wet-plate method) to albumin prints (dry-plate method). Here's a brief description of each.

Daguerrotype is a direct positive image making process. The image is exposed directly onto a mirror-polished surface of silver bearing a coating of silver halide particles deposited by iodine vapor. The ambrotype creates a glass negative which appears as a positive when placed against a black background.  One side of a very clean plate is covered with a thin layer of collodion, then dipped into a silver nitrate solution.  The plate is exposed to the subject while still wet, then, it is developed and fixed. Albumin is quality rag paper.  A thin layer of beaten and strained egg white with either ammonium or sodium chloride is applied to the paper.  It is allowed to dry.  Then, it is soaked in a ten percent solution of silver nitrate and acetic acid.

Professor Takahashi of Nihon University College of Art mentions in his introduction to the show that the first daguerrotype arrived in Japan five years before the arrival of Commodore Perry's fleet.  
The show includes a daguerrotype of Eliphalet Brown, Jr who accompanied Commodore Perry on his expedition to open Japan.

Portrait of TANAKA Mitsuyoshi
Eliphalet Brown, Jr

What I enjoyed the most is seeing the works (albumin prints 1862-c1880) of Renjo Shimooka who photographed mainly the common people.  In effect, his photographs preserve for posterity the life of the common people during this junction in Japan's development.

Renjo trained as an artist before becoming a photographer.  He learned a little about photography from an American daguerrotypist in 1856 but completed his training from another visiting American, Captain John Wilson around 1860.  He acquired Wilson's camera and set up his own studio.

Here's a list of his albumin prints on exhibit.

-A seller of sieves, including sieves for fermented bean past.

-Priests reading the Sutras
There's a group of priests sitting on a raised platform.  Two of the men have their hands clasped in gassho.  There are eight priests.  One priest is chanting the sutras.  There's a small altar in front of him.  There's a beautiful screen of Japanese cranes in the background.

He is wearing a mawashi.  He's holding what looks like a bell in his right hand.  There's a cord belt wrapped around his waist.  He's wearing a head ban.  His left leg is bent at the knee and lifted in the air.

-Practicing calligraphy

-Labourer with earth-carrying basket on shoulder


-Hulling rice in a mortar
A man wearing a mawashi is pounding rice in a mortar.  His back is to the camera.  He's pounding the rice just outside his house on the street.

-Constable and criminal

There are 3 men standing before the camera.  The middle man has a scarf wrapped around his head and face.  The man on his left has a knife stashed in his belt.   I wonder who of the two other men is the criminal.  They are standing in the street along the side wall of a wooden building.

-A cooper?
He has a mallet raised in mid-air ready to strike the casket he is making. 

-Fruit Seller
She is leaning against the wall.  She is wearing a head scarf.  She is standing behind her carrying pole which is laden with fruit.

-Seller of Sweets

-General (in helmet and armor)

-Puppet Opera

-Seated young woman

-Selling Abacus
He looks worn out.  He's sitting on the ground in between the space of his carrying pole.  His carrying pole is laden with abacus.

-Spinning thread


Three men sare drinking sake together. The man seated in the middle is playing an instrument.  The man on his left is holding a sake cup in his right hand.  The man on the right is holding chopsticks in his right hand and is about to help himself to some food from the table.  His right arm is covered in tattoos.  They are barefoot seating cross legged.


-Samurai in ceremonial attire

-Umbrella maker

There's over a dozen children standing and looking at the camera.  There are several adults standing behind them.

There's a photograph by Usui, Shuzaburo of an execution ground.  The photograph is faded.  It depicts three chopped heads on display on a brick wall.

Execution Ground
USUI Shuzaburo
Albumin Print

This photo show is fascinating and visually reveals the rapid changes feudal Japan underwent to modernize.  The early portrait photographs of the 1860s depict daimyos and samurai clutching/holding their swords. By the 1890s, the swords are gone and many Japanese men are donning Western dress.

The show runs for the next few months and is definitely worth checking out.