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The J. Paul Getty Museum has published the impressive book, Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road, to accompany an exhibition of the same title on view at the Getty Center in Los Angeles from December 7, 2010 to April 24, 2011. The exhibition will then travel to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography from March 6 to May 6, 2012.

Previous exhibitions have tended to focus on one aspect of Beato's career, such as his war photographs or his work in Japan, and Beato has been included in numerous exhibitions that survey 19th-century photographs of Japan. However, the Getty exhibition is the first devoted to the entire oeuvre of this pioneering 19th-century photographer. Anne Lacoste, a former Getty curator now at the Musée d'Elysée in Lausanne, organized the exhibition from the Getty's formidable collection of 1200 Beato photographs, more than 800 of which the Getty recently acquired from the Wilson Centre for Photography. A few additional photographs are from the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

The career of Felice Beato (1832-1909) is inextricable from the histories of the expansion of both the British Empire and Asian trade in the nineteenth century. Born in Venice, Beato spent his early years in Corfu, a British protectorate, which enabled him to become a naturalized British citizen. In 1844, he moved with his family to Constantinople, where he began his storied career working for the Scottish photographer James Robertson, who had one of the first commercial studios in this gateway between Europe and Asia. Robertson, who married Beato's sister, sent the young Beato to photograph the Crimean War in 1856. The following year, Robertson, Beato, and the latter's younger brother Antonio set off to take photographs of historic sites in Egypt and the Holy Land. During his early years with Robertson, Beato learned the technical aspects of working with glass plate negatives, panoramic images, and hand-colored photographs. In addition, Beato developed his instincts for choosing subjects that would appeal to a Western clientele of military commanders, diplomats, tourists, and expatriats. Beato then embarked independently, arriving in India in 1858 to photograph the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, or First War of Independence, and on to China in 1860 to cover the end of the Second Opium War. Beato later accompanied an American naval expedition to Korea in 1871 and traveled to Sudan to photograph the Anglo-Sudan War in 1885 (but he arrived in Sudan three months after the conflict was over).

Between sessions photographing military personnel and battle sites in India and China, Beato made side trips to photograph cultural monuments. Thus, by the time this entrepreneurial photographer and inveterate traveler arrived in Yokohama in 1863, he had already built up an inventory and was adept at developing new clientele. In Japan, he produced his largest body of work, and he has been proclaimed "the father of Yokohama photography” (the tag originated in his own day). When travel inside the newly-opened country in the 1860s was still rigidly curtailed, Beato connected with diplomatic missions that enabled him to travel extensively throughout the country. He established a thriving practice of making photographs of travel routes, historic sites, and staged scenes of the Japanese. His subjects, hand-colored photographs, and albums of "views" and "costumes" established a model for subsequent photographers. In 1884, this charismatic and colorful character left Japan virtually penniless and moved on to Burma (present day Myanmar), where he once again built up a photographic practice, now supplemented with a curio shop and export business. Beato spent his final years in Italy and died in Florence in 1909. If he hadn't lost numerous fortunes on the stock market and land speculation, this successful photographer might have become very rich indeed.

Deftly incorporating the most recent research of Terry Bennett, David Harris, Luke Gartlan, Sebastien Dobson, Allan Hockley, and others,[1] Lacoste provides an excellent survey of Beato's career in her catalogue essay. Though the trajectory is familiar, her overview makes it clear that Beato's many innovations made him an important pioneer in just about every kind of photography and far-flung location into which he immersed himself. Sidebars to her essay cover topics such as Beato's clientele, his Japanese albums, and his panoramic photographs. Especially useful is one devoted to the technical aspects of Beato's work that draws on the expertise of the conservators in the Getty's Department of Paper Conservation and the Getty Conservation Institute and covers his use of albumen glass negatives, wet-collodion glass plate negatives, dry-plate negatives, and albumen prints. Alas, lacking is information on the dyes and watercolors Beato's Japanese assistants used for his hand-colored photographs, one of his most innovative and influential practices.

Despite the many positive aspects of her essay, Lacoste offers little analysis of either Beato's style or choice of subjects. For example, the most famous photographs of the Crimean War are by Roger Fenton, who preceded Robertson and Beato there. How do Beato's photographs of the Crimea differ from those of his predecessor? Can Beato's works, with their blocked out skies, straight-on viewpoint, and centralized compositions be distinguished from those of his contemporaries? This is a thorny issue to be sure, especially when considering his works in Japan, since his inventory changed hands a number of times and subsequent photographers reprinted his negatives and sold them under their own names. Many others modeled their images on Beato's work. As Gartlan has pointed out, the Austrian photographer Baron Raimund von Stillfried literally retraced Beato's footsteps to re-photograph Beato's sites.

When we look at Beato's photographs of people, other questions arise. First, why did he adopt the vignette format in Japan? Two photographs seemingly from the same negative, one with a vignette and one without, are illustrated side by side in this book without comment (figs. 14 and 15). The one without a vignette is a darker, richer print, while the other is lighter and hand-colored. Is there a correlation between the vignette and the use of hand coloring in the second print, which was made five years later after he had lost much of his inventory in a studio fire? Could this have been either a damaged print or a new negative made form a surviving photograph that would not produce prints as sharp? Second, how do Beato's photographs of the Japanese relate to "costume" and "occupation" photographs from other areas of the world? Other than those of military officers and the like, these should not be referred to as "portraits" as Lacoste does, because they were made as generic types rather than to capture the specific likenesses of individuals. In fact, they are closer to tableaux vivants.[2]

As so much of his career was devoted to following the British military to the edges of its empire in Asia, Fred Ritchin's essay, "Felice Beato and the Photography of War," is a welcome addition to the catalogue. Examining Beato's work in the context of the history of war photography demonstrates again how innovative his work was. Working under the most adverse conditions, he nevertheless was able to build a marketable inventory. Though his large view camera, glass plate negatives, bottles of chemicals, and bulky darkroom equipment were hardly suitable for the front lines, Beato nevertheless photographed the Second Opium War "as it unfolded."

Beato's photographs of the "grotesqueries of war," Ritchin says, demonstrate that Beato understood "the power, visceral and commercial" (122). As David Harris has pointed out previously,[3] Beato created sequences of photographs to highlight the overpowering, and brutal, strength of the British-French military campaign in China. He photographed important locations, such as the forts at Taku, from different angles, showing both the means of attack and the fallen enemy. He even rearranged corpses, much as Alexander Gardner would do a few years later for his photographs of the American Civil War. Beato profited from his time in China in other ways, too. After the British and French forces looted and burned the Imperial Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan) in Peking, Beato sold his cut of the spoils. Afterwards, he went to London to market his photographs of India and China through the dealer Henry Hering on Regent's Street (Hering's catalogue of Beato's photographs is reproduced in an appendix). Richtin's essay combines his analysis of Beato's war photographs with a kind of meditation on war photography, with references to the likes of Benjamin, Barthes, and Sontag.[4]

As would be expected of Getty publications, the exhibition catalogue is of the highest quality, and it does just what a museum publication should do. Illustrated with 162 color reproductions, most of which are full-page, the book provides specifics of medium and dimension, historical essays, a chronology, and a bibliography related to this important body of work in the Getty’s collection. Though many may argue that such a focus on one photographer only reinforces an obsolete master narrative of photographic history, for anyone interested in Beato, or in the photography of travel, war, the British Empire, or Asia during the nineteenth century, this volume serves admirably as an important resource.


A checklist of the 124 photographs in the exhibition may be found at:[http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/beato/beato_checklist.pdf.]

Eleanor M. Hight is Professor of Art History at the University of New Hampshire. Her book, Capturing Japan in Nineteenth Century New England Photography Collections, is forthcoming from Ashgate Publishing in summer 2011. She is currently organizing the exhibition Felice Beato: Photographer in Nineteenth Century Japan for the University of New Hampshire’s Museum of Art, to open in October 2011.

Notes

    1. Especially relevant are Terry Bennett, Korea: Caught in Time (Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing, 1997); Photography in Japan, 1853-1912 (Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 2006); History of Photography in China, 1842-1860 (London: Bernard Quarritch Ltd., 2009); and Luke Gartlan, "James Robertson and Felice Beato in the Crimea: Recent Findings," History of Photography 29:1 (spring 2005): 72-80; and "Types or Costumes? Reframing Early Yokohama Photography," Visual Resources 22:3 (September 2006), 239-63.return to text

    2. Beato's photographs of Japanese occupations make an interesting comparison with the photographs taken by Irving Penn in Paris in 1950-1951, as recently explored by Lacoste and another Getty curator, Virginia Heckert, in Irving Penn: Small Trades (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009).return to text

    3. David Harris, Of Battle and Beauty: Felice Beato's Photographs of China (Santa Barbara, CA: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1999).return to text

    4. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981); Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" ([1936] in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968); and Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003).return to text