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Among the first photographs to be made by Japanese photographers exclusively for Japanese clients, ambrotypes—collodion negatives exposed on blackened glass to make them look like positive images—were produced in large numbers in Japan in the 1880s and 1890s, well after the process had been superseded in the West. Usually featuring full-length studio portraits of individuals and groups, they were presented in light Kiri-wood cases, carefully handcrafted to snugly fit each image. These cases sometimes feature a photographer’s stamp or inscription as well as a message or poem from the client; a portrait of a young man might be accompanied, for example, by several poems brushed onto the case by his father, exhorting him to live an upright life. In many ways these unique combinations of photography and calligraphy exemplify the tensions of the Meiji era, a time when Japan was seeking to reconcile its own traditions with the ways of the West, including the widening influence of photography itself.
An early example shows a samurai in Western dress holding his sword, already an incongruous image. Dated to 1867, the image was thus made at made at the end of the Edo shogunate—a time of great social upheaval, when Japan began to make its transition from feudal to modern society. The sitter's new (and yet discordantly foreign) uniform and samurai sword indicate a personage of high rank. After the advent of the Meiji era, the samurai caste was abolished and by 1876 sumurai were no longer allowed to wear their swords in public. This man therefore hovers on the edges of two eras, not quite belonging to either. Another ambrotype, dated on the case to precisely December 19, 1892, shows a young man standing in traditional robes facing the camera. Beside him is a pedestal, traditionally a base for a piece of sculpture but here made to support a bowler hat, so that the hat is presented like an ethnographic object on display. It’s as if this photograph is trying to put “the West” in inverted commas, drawing our attention to this other culture’s difference and strangeness, but doing so using a medium that is the epitome of this same strangeness.
As these two examples indicate, a closer analysis of Japanese ambrotypes might offer a way to articulate the political and cultural complexities being negotiated by photographers in Japan in this period. Such an analysis would also draw attention to a fascinating and distinctively Japanese genre of photography that has hitherto received little or no attention.
See Charles Schwartz, Japanese Ambrotypes 1860-1890: Images from the Charles Schwartz Collection (1960-1890) (New York: Charles Schwartz Ltd., 2009). Unfortunately very little has been published on ambrotypes in histories devoted to Japanese photography. Some examples from the collection of Charles Schwartz are reproduced, but not discussed, in Anne Wilkes Tucker et. al., The History of Japanese Photography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
On the reconciliation of tradition and modernity in Meiji-era Japan, see Stephen Vlastos, ‘Tradition: Past/Present Culture and Modern Japanese History,’ in Stephen Vlastos ed., Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan (University of California Press, 1998), 1-16.
This and other examples were recently exhibited in the exhibition Suspending Time: Life-Photography-Death, shown at the Izu Photo Museum in Shizuoka, Japan, between April 3 and August 20, 2010. This introduction is largely drawn from an essay produced for the catalogue that accompanied this exhibition.
Geoffrey Batchen teaches the history of photography as Professor of Art History at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
Yoshiaki Kai is a historian of photography. He was assistant curator of "Suspending Time: Life-Photography-Death."
Masashi Kohara is a documentary filmmaker and researcher at IZU PHOTO MUSEUM in Japan.