Eleanor M. Hight, Capturing Japan in Nineteenth-Century New England Photography Collections. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011). 226 pp. ISBN 9781409404989
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The appreciation of Japan has long been an important part of Boston’s cultural identity, and, as Professor Hight adeptly illustrates in her examination of the photographic collections of six visitors from New England to Japan in the first two decades of the Meiji Era (1868–1912), photographic documentation not only formed an important part of what they brought back with them but also reflected a shared desire to capture a Japan that was in danger of disappearing altogether in the wake of industrialization and Westernization. In the author’s memorable words, “photographs shaped the New Englanders’ vision of Japan before, during, and after their travels through the newly opened Asian nation.” The same could presumably be said of other Western visitors to Japan at this time, which gives this study wider appeal.
The cast of characters is varied, as is the length of time each spent in Japan (added below in parenthesis). We have the independently wealthy traveler and playboy, Charles Appleton Longfellow (twenty months during 1871–72, seven in 1885 and a shorter stay in 1891); the marine biologist, polymath, and pioneer Japan expert, Edward Sylvester Morse (two years from 1878 to 1880, three if one counts an exploratory four-month visit made previously in 1877, not to mention a repeat visit in the summer of 1882); the Boston Brahmin, art collector and subsequent Buddhist convert, William Sturgis Bigelow (a seven-year stretch lasting from 1882 to 1889); the Boston society lady and art collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner (fewer than three months in 1883 as part of a world tour); the recently-widowed historian Henry Adams (two months in 1886), and the Wellesley College educator, Mary Alice Knox (a short, unspecified period during a tour of Asia in 1886–1887). Some of these travelers, in particular Longfellow and Morse, have already received much scholarly attention, and Hight avoids unnecessary overlap with previous research by examining her subjects as members of a wider network of participants in the encounter between New England and Old Japan.
Networks quickly emerge as an important aspect of this encounter. The sheer wealth of connections that this group of New Englanders could call upon is impressive: how else, for example, could the 27-year-old Harvard dropout Longfellow (son of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) secure an undemanding sinecure at the United States Legation in Tokyo, thereby lengthening his first jaunt to Japan into a stay lasting almost two years. Unsurprisingly, most of the collectors featured in this book seem to have known one another already: Bigelow (a childhood friend of Henry Cabot Lodge) was particularly well-connected: an occasional visitor to the Adams’s residence in Washington (Bigelow and Mrs. Adams shared a grandfather), he served as Morse’s traveling companion on the latter’s trip to Japan in 1882, and as a guide to Mrs. Gardner (whom his father, “the foremost doctor in Boston,” had previously treated) on her visit in the following year. One almost feels sorry for the New York-born Mary Alice Knox, who seems rather left out of this agreeable huddle of New England’s great and good, though her relatively modest family connections did at least run to a missionary brother then teaching at Tokyo Imperial University, who probably acted as her host and guide in Japan.
Each traveler engaged with photography in a different way. Bigelow was an enthusiastic amateur photographer (sadly, the photographs he took in Japan appear to have been lost); his role as one of the founding members in 1889 of the Photographic Society of Japan demands further investigation. In the case of Henry Adams, photography contributed indirectly to the personal tragedy that overshadowed his visit to Japan: his wife, an amateur photographer, committed suicide by drinking potassium cyanide, an essential component of her private darkroom. All, however, shared an enthusiasm for buying photographs during their sojourns in Japan, and the visual archives each passed down to the present day can all be counted in three figures, ranging in scale from a modest collection such as that assembled by Miss Knox to a collection such as Professor Morse’s, which reaches the high hundreds. As Hight deftly shows, the motivation for doing buying photographs varied: for Longfellow, the photos appear to have documented a hedonistic bachelor life in Japan (a prominent feature of his collection are portraits of young Japanese women, most of whom ‘Ronfuro-san’ knew by name and, in some cases, in the Biblical sense as well); for Morse, they functioned as educational materials, especially for his public lectures back home; Bigelow used them as documentary evidence to supplement his collections of Japanese art, while Gardner pasted them into the scrapbooks assembled during her travels; for Adams they provided souvenirs of his stay in Tokyo and Nikkô, and for Knox they served as material to assist in the teaching of her pioneering course on “The History of Oriental Civilization.”
As the author points out, these case studies illustrate a fundamental paradox of the medium of photography, for “photographs can document real experience while simultaneously creating an imaginary one.” This duality is explored throughout the rest of the book with an examination of the development of commercial photography in Japan, the relation of photographs to the experience—real and imagined—of traveling through nineteenth-century Japan, and the role of commercially available photographs in attempting to capture a pre-modern society fast disappearing in the wake of modernization and Westernization. Regardless of their reasons for acquiring photographs, each of the six collectors in this book seems to have selected subject matter—whether geisha, samurai, sumo wrestlers, or tattooed laborers—that conformed to stereotypes of Japan already familiar to them, and reinforced the image of an idealized “Old Japan.” Hight presents her case engagingly, but occasionally overstates it. Was there really a conscious effort on the part of photographers in Yokohama and elsewhere in nineteenth-century Japan to avoid depicting the Westernization of the country? An interesting comparison could be made with a presentation album compiled by a Tokyo studio for the Italian envoy Raphael Barbolani on his departure from Japan in 1881: an ambitious production, encapsulating the entire geographical extent of Japan at that time and containing over 1,200 photographs, it presents the viewer with a visual narrative in which agricultural scenes and well-known beauty spots jostle alongside unfamiliar views of recently-constructed tokens of modernity such as factories, schools, government buildings, and bridges. As David Odo has pointed out, this unusual album deserves to be better known to scholars and merits further study.
We should remember that modernity can often appear where we least expect it: the frequent presence of a rickshaw, or jinrikisha, in nineteenth-century studio photographs or outdoor scenes should not blind us to the fact that, however “Japanese” this ubiquitous staple of tourist photography may seem to us now, in the Meiji Era it was very much a by-product of Japan’s modernization. This is not to dispute the purchasing decisions made by each of the collectors examined by Hight, but I suggest that there was a wider range of subject matter available to these visitors from New England, which in turn makes their respective choices all the more significant.
Some errors should be noted, however:
At present, there is still no conclusive evidence that Felice Beato spent “his early years in Italy” (70), and his alter ego in the pages of the satirical journal Japan Punch was ‘Count Collodion,’ not “the Prince of Collodion” (57). The photograph attributed to Beato on p.122 and presented as a “more sexual counterpart” to his earlier work is in fact a product of Baron von Stillfried’s studio. Although British troops were garrisoned in Yokohama between 1864 and 1876 for the protection of the foreign community, to describe the treaty port at this time as “ruled by the British as a protectorate” (154) is overstating the case and ignores the presence of an equivalent force of French troops. “Ajari,”’ in reference to Bigelow’s Buddhist mentor Sakurai Keitoku (33), is a title rather than a name. Finally, it is an exaggeration to state that the Meiji Emperor and Empress went to Uchida Kuichi’s Tokyo studio to have their official portraits taken in 1872 and 1873 (134); there were limits to just how far the imperial household was prepared to embrace the new medium of photography, and the sittings took place instead in the confines of the Imperial Palace, with Uchida being summoned there on each occasion.
These oversights do not detract from a work that could serve as a model for other surveys of Japanese photography. Hight’s approach could be extended profitably beyond New England to other regions of the United States that have their own special relationship with Japan (California, for example) and to other collections of similar provenance and quality (such as that assembled during 1870–1874 by the educator William Elliot Griffis, now held at Rutgers University). Other important collections of nineteenth-century Japanese photographs have emerged in Europe over the past two decades, and at present no fewer than three research teams from the University of Tokyo are engaged in examining collections in Germany, Austria, and Italy. Collections in Japan also await investigation by Western scholars, and perhaps it is not fanciful to hope that future scholars will also examine the movement of photographs in the opposite direction during the nineteenth century and the role played by the medium in shaping Japanese perceptions of the outside world.
In his examination of the journal that Morse kept during his first visit to Japan in 1877, Luke Gartlan uncovered an editorial policy by which the references in Morse’s original manuscript to his traveling companion were “assiduously excised’” when the manuscript was prepared for publication in 1917. The victim of this deliberate expurgation was the Milwaukee art collector, amateur photographer and fellow tourist, William Henry Metcalf, whose presence during Morse’s first exploratory tour of Japan presumably struck a discordant note forty years later when the historiography surrounding Morse was being written to accord more with his subsequent status as one the foremost Japan experts in the United States, as well as the growing preeminence of New England as an international center for the study of Japanese culture. Similarly lacking from Morse’s published journals were his references to acquiring photographs in Japan in 1877 to supplement his sketches. As Gartlan convincingly argues, “the denial of such popular tourist practices as amateur photography and sightseeing, so central to the dissemination of knowledge of the country overseas, was a necessary corollary to the rise of the Japanese area specialist (127–128).” The resulting marginalization of photography in the scholarly investigation of Japan has been challenged only relatively recently, and it is an encouraging sign of the medium’s growing acceptance as a subject of serious study by Japan specialists that these hitherto neglected, but nonetheless important, visual artifacts from New England’s engagement with Japan in the nineteenth century can now be studied in their own right.
Sebastian Dobson is an independent scholar based in Antwerp, Belgium. His publications include contributions to Art and Artifice: Japanese Photographs of the Meiji Era (2004) and A Much Recorded War: The Russo-Japanese War in History and Imagery (2005), both published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as well as entries in The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford University Press, 2005) and Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography (Routledge, 2007). His most recent publication Under Eagle Eyes: Lithographs, Drawings & Photographs from the Prussian Expedition to Japan, 1860–61, co-edited with Sven Saaler, is reviewed elsewhere in this issue of TAP Review.
Longfellow’s photographs from his first visit to Japan are reproduced as appendices authored by Ishiguro Keishô and Sebastian Dobson in Charles A. Longfellow (translated by Yamada Kumiko): Ronguferô nihon taizaiki – Meiji shonen, Amerika seinen no mita Nippon (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2004).
Three hundred lantern slide photographs of Japanese subjects from the E.S. Morse Collection in the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, have been published in book form: Konishi Shirô and Oka Hideyuki (eds.): Môsu korekushon: shashin-hen - Hyakunen mae no Nihon (Tokyo: Shogakkan, 1983, reprinted in 2005).
See Alan Chong and Noriko Murai (eds.), Journeys East: Isabella Stewart Gardner and Asia (Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2009). The section covering Gardner’s visit to Japan is reproduced on pp. 104–179.
David R. Odo: “Expeditionary Photographs of the Ogasawara Islands, 1875–76,” History of Photography, 33:2 (May 2009), 203. The Barbolani album is reproduced in full in Marisa di Russo and Ishiguro Keishô: Dai Nihon zenkoku meisho ichiran: Itaria kôshi hizô no Meiji shashinshû (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2001).
See Luke Gartlan: “’Bronzed and Muscular Bodies’: Jinrikishas, Tattooed Bodies, and Yokohama Tourist Photography,” in Julie F. Codell (ed.): Transculturation in British Art, 1770–1930, (Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing), forthcoming.