PHOTOGRAPHY is the art of capturing light with a camera, preserving a small slice of the past.
Reading British writer Terry Bennett’s “Photography in Japan: 1853-1912” is like traveling back in time to the 19th century of Japan, from the late Edo or Bakumatsu period to the end of the Meiji era.
In 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry, backed by a fleet of intimidating “black ships,” compelled the reclusive nation of Japan to sign a treaty that gave foreigners access to a country that had been closed to the outside world for 250 years. Reluctantly at first, and then enthusiastically, Japan opened its doors to people and ideas, modernizing at a rate that was unprecedented in human society. All of this was captured on camera.
The 400 old and rare Japanese photos Bennett has collected in this book — whether sensational or everyday, intimate or panoramic — document a nation’s rapid transformation from a feudal society to a modern, industrial state.
The book provides unique insights into the photographers, Japanese and Western. “The fascinating stories behind each image can tell us much about a photograph that might otherwise afford little or no information,” Bennett says in the book.
Key participants are here, including Nakahama Manjiro, one of the first Japanese to take successful pictures; Shimooka Renji, the first professional Japanese photographer; as well as Ukai Gyokusen, a samurai who was recognized as probably the first in Japan to open a commercial studio.
Some Western photographers, like Austrian aristocrat Baron von Stillfried and Italian adventurer Adolfo Farsari, took up photography professionally after arriving in Japan. Others, like wealthy Britons Walter Clutterbuck and Francis Guillemard, were amateur photographers who liked to travel.
The book also mentions “The China Connection” where Bennett says: “There have always been important historical links between these two countries, and Japan has been enriched in the past by the importation of Chinese art, ideas and culture.”