Although tourist photographers typically avoided depicting social and environmental change, Uchida Kuichi (1844–1875), whose studios were in Tokyo and Yokahama, explored the tensions between tradition and modernization. Uchida pictured the wooden Kawaibashi Bridge over the Numakawa River flanked by telegraph poles and crossed by wires that occlude the view of the snow-capped Mount Fuji, one of the famous scenic sites in Japan that had been codified by ukiyo-e landscape prints. Uchida further utilized the compositional strategies of printmakers by dividing the picture plane with sharp diagonals and framing the distant scenic backdrop with extremely near elements such as sprays of grass. In Uchida’s View from Bridge Tagonourabashi, to Fudzisan, a man pulls a jinrikisha, or Japanese rickshaw, with a passenger wearing a Western top hat and holding a Western-style cloth umbrella. Uchida traveled extensively throughout Japan as the official photographer on the imperial tours of the Emperor Meiji. His pictures reflect the state authorities’ interest in promoting a modernized appearance that countered Western stereotypes of Japan as a regressive backwater.[28]

Understanding that Euro-American photographic technology not only depicted but also embodied the modernizing process in Japan, Uchida turned the camera on his own photographic operation.[29] Vermilioned Bridge, Nicco is the only known photograph from the Meiji period to show Japanese photographers at work. Departing from common views of the bridge seen from the side at close range—a perspective prevalent in Japanese prints as well—Uchida’s camera zooms out to reveal the hidden labor involved in capturing such a picture.[30] In a narrow slice of shadow, a photographer and two assistants can be seen tending a portable darkroom, a curtained chamber for preparing and processing wet plate photographs when working outdoors. Although mobile darkrooms were typically raised on a folding table or similar platform, the equipment depicted here rests directly on the ground. Japanese craftsmen, such as potters and printmakers, customarily worked on the ground rather than at a table or bench. The photograph represents a fascinating fusion of Western camera technology with the local tradition of floor work.[31]

Image credits:
Uchida Kuichi (Japanese, 1843/4–1875), View from Bridge Kawaibashi, to Fudzisan, c. 1872; View from Bridge Tagonourabashi, to Fudzisan, c. 1872; and Vermilioned Bridge, Nicco, c. 1872 (all printed c. 1880, likely by Hasegawa Kichijirō). Mounted albumen prints. Russell Sturgis Photograph Collection, University Archives, Washington University Libraries.

Unknown (Japanese), Shinkyo Bridge over the Daiya River, n.d. Mounted hand-colored albumen print, bound in album, Japan, vol. 8. Russell Sturgis Photograph Collection, Kranzberg Art & Architecture Library, Washington University in St. Louis.