Friday, October 03, 2014

A Review of Photography in Japan: 1853 - 1912

From time to time publishers and friends have passed books on to me in the hopes that I will review them. This I have failed to do, to my shame.

Here is a first attempt at what I hope will become a regular Shisaku feature.

Please let me know what you think.


One of my great joys in visiting historical museums or leafing through historical texts is the chance to revel in the photographic images therein. Seeing the images of long ago persons and places, some familiar, most not, strikes the heart in ways no text can.

It was not until my receipt of Terry Bennett's 2006 lavishly illustrated study Photography in Japan: 1853-1912 that I gave much thought as what was going on behind the lens.

Bennett's book tries to fill this void. He describes in details gleaned from newspaper archives and the secondary literature the colorful lives of the persons who brought a new technology of mechanically manufactured images to a country with a rich tradition of hand crafted, mass-printed images -- and more often than not, with an attitude. For a Northern Californian like myself, the story of Jack London's brief and megalomanic turn as a photographer and war correspondent, making an utter nuisance of himself as he tried to cover the Russo-Japanese War, is splash of cold water on a revered (Link) figure.

The true joys of the book are, of course, the photo images themselves. There 350 of them, many which have been published nowhere else. For the resident of Japan such as myself, there is a vicarious thrill of seeing images of a places retaining the contours they had in the last years of the Tokugawa. More often, however, is the astonishment as to how much has been lost, never to be seen again (the beach at Sankeien) except in black and white and two dimensions.

Bennett's goal main goal, as he states in the preface, is to illuminate the photos through the personal histories of their producers. Some of the photographers introduced-- Raimund von Stillfried-Ratenizcs, the mysterious Yamamoto, Enami Tamotsu, William Burton -- are clearly geniuses. They deserve separate books of just their reproduced images. Bennett, however, introduces even the less skilled or artistic with equal vigor, if the photographer's contributions to the visual history of Japan merits notice.

This last point, however, highlights the book's major weakness: it is not what the title promises. What Bennett has produced is not an account of "photography in Japan" in the Bakumatsu and Meiji eras. It is instead a study of "photographers in Japan" during those eras. The section on the various technological and logistical hurdles inherent in producing and storing the images on display -- from daguerreotypes to ambrotypes to wet plate to dry plate and albumen paper -- should be in the main body of the text, not relegated to an appendix. Virtually nothing is written about how photographs were consumed, particularly by the mass media and news organizations. From the use of now archaic technical terms ("cartes de visite," "souvenir albums") we are to understand the photos were bought directly from the studios by final consumers -- tourists, business persons and diplomats -- without explanation as to how these consumption patterns affected or failed to affect prevailing global views of Japan.

Bennett's text also sometimes lurches from the didactic to the overly personal. When a paragraph begins:
“When considering early images, we should try hard to identify the photographers and learn something about their backgrounds."
the reader is left to wonder to whom it is the author thinks he is speaking. The section in the Preface on how hard it is to attain proficiency in the Japanese language is embarrassing and should never have appeared in a book published by a house so readily and intimately identified with books on Japan.

These flaws of judgment are insufficient to put a big dent in the book's appeal, however. I for one am glad that now, when I see the watermark or logo of a long-disappeared studio owner on an ancient image of a man in lacquered armor, a diplomatic mission or a view of Nikko, I can pull Bennett's book out of my bookshelf and find out about the human who stood behind a wooden and metal box, in a haze of inebriating and sometimes exploding chemicals, urging this subjects a century and a half ago in Japan, "OK, now. Please stand still."

Photography in Japan: 1853-1912
By Terry Bennett (2006)
Tuttle Publishing


Yakimi said...

I would love to see book reviews on Shisaku.

Dan Waldhoff said...

I admire and respect your insight and depth of perception in most things relating to Japan, book reviews are no exception.

Unknown said...

As would I. Thanks for this one :)

Balefire said...

I agree. I would be very interested in reading your reviews.

Martin J Frid said...

I for one would love to read more reviews like this by MTC. It may even make me go out on a limb and by the book, since you would already tell me what to expect, and what not to expect. Most ads for books are all hype and it takes too much time to discover if it is worth it or not. Having learnt a lot from your blog over the years, well, all I can say is, go for it.