This engrossing study of how a formerly feudal society embraced photography in the 19th century is a must-read, says Geoff Harris
Photography in Japan by Terry Bennett
With Japan having a ‘moment’ – more people are visiting than ever before, and there’s lots of excitement about the Olympics – it seems an opportune time to feature this masterful historical work. Photography has deep roots in the land of the rising sun, and it’s no coincidence Japanese camera makers still dominate the market.
A review is also timely as there is currently a lot of interest in old images from the Far East, and although rare negatives and prints from 19th century Japan don’t generally fetch as much as those from China, they remain a great investment. Terry Bennett is a world authority in this subject, being the driving force behind the well-regarded website, oldasiaphotography.com (he also found and helped restore the grave of the great British travel photographer, John Thomson).
The earliest known photography of Japan dates from the 1850s, which may not seem a big deal compared to the UK or France, but goes back to the dawn of the country’s modernisation. Under pressure from American and European governments, backed by veiled military threats, the feudal Tokugawa dynasty who’d ruled the place since 1600 reluctantly allowed foreigners to trade and settle in large numbers. And with the traders, diplomats and adventurers came cameras…
The depth of Bennett’s research into this period is really impressive, and he reveals his findings that the first Japanese photographer was probably Manjiro Nakahama, a castaway who learned English in America and returned to Edo (now Tokyo) in the early 1850s with daguerreotype equipment. As you’d expect, Bennett gives a lot of space to the achievements of Felice Beato (1832-1909) whose hand-tinted images of bashful yet alluring geisha and fierce samurai still colour – pardon the pun – how we think of Japan. Yet much followed after Beato, and Bennett’s richly illustrated narrative on the development of commercial photography in the fast-changing country is riveting. A monumental achievement.
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Photography in Japan
Published by Tuttle Publishing
All pictures reproduced with permission