Souvenir photographs were one of the most popular collectibles purchased by travelers to Japan and an important vehicle for conveying Japanese images and aesthetics to the West. Tourists to Japan brought home prints and elegant albums made to order by the hundreds of commercial photographers, both foreign and Japanese, working in the country’s cities and treaty ports. The market for photographs also included expatriates, merchants, and foreign commissioners outside of Japan. Photographers catered to western tastes. They traveled on tourist routes capturing popular scenic areas such as the environs of Mount Fuji and the shores of Lake Chuzenji in Nikko. They depicted the spectacular architecture of Japan, including the ornate Yōmeimon Gate at the Tōshōgū Shrine. Many photographs focused on the traditional costumes of different classes and occupations as well as other aspects of local culture, like a dainty geisha walking in the snow. While black-and-white photographs were common, tourists favored prints that were carefully hand-tinted by skilled artisans trained in coloring ukiyo-e prints. Their softness of color and stained-glass-like translucency owe to the use of water-soluble tints, which produced more naturalistic effects than the phantasmagoric oil pigments used by Western colorists, as seen in the Venice section of this exhibition.
In the early Meiji period, most photographers in Japan were foreigners. While a number of Japanese had their pictures taken or went to work for the Western photographers as studio assistants, others met the new technology with alarm. Initially fears arose concerning the dark magic of the camera. A superstition held, “Once photographed, your shadow will fade; twice photographed, your life will shorten.” In an early photograph of the Kameido Tenmangū shrine in Tokyo, the man hiding his face from the lens likely illustrates these fears of the occult powers of the camera. Local Japanese photographers began to open their own studies in the 1860s, in response to the expansion of the tourist market. By the 1870s, Japanese commercial studios were flourishing.
Unknown (Japanese), Lake Chuzenji, n.d.; Nikko, Toshogu, Entrance to Temple, Nikko, n.d. Mounted hand-colored albumen prints, bound in album, Japan, vol. 8. Russell Sturgis Photograph Collection, Kranzberg Art & Architecture Library, Washington University in St. Louis; and Woman with Umbrella in Snow Storm, 1880-90s. Hand-tinted albumen print, 10 3/16 x 7 9/16 in. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Gift of Laurie Wilson, Robert Frerck, and family, 2015.
Unknown (Japanese), View of the Drum Bridge at Kameido Tenmangū Shrine, Tokyo, n.d. Mounted albumen print. Russell Sturgis Photograph Collection, University Archives, Washington University Libraries.