Maki Fukuoka, The Premise of Fidelity: Science, Visuality and the Representation of the Real in Nineteenth Century Japan (Stanford University Press, 2012) 272 pp. ISBN 9780804777902
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Maki Fukuoka’s new publication is a book that delves into the origins of photography in Japan before its actual presence. While most books considering the history of photography in Japan will start with the moment when the technology, with its unique devices and distinctive prints, was introduced to the land, Fukuoka’s approach heads in a rather different direction: instead of tracing the technological and physical history of the medium, Fukuoka’s endeavour is targeted at the theoretical value of photography as a medium and a concept in Japan. To be able to do so, Fukuoka starts with a genealogical scrutiny into the term shashin 写真, the Japanese word for “photography,” which can roughly be translated as “Reflecting/ Tracing/ Inscribing Truth.” Fukuoka chooses to explore the genealogy of the term in a Foucauldian manner, walking into the history and archival material that stands behind this term, to be able to understand what were the particular reasons that led to its eventual selection as the translation of the term “photography.” Therefore, Fukuoka’s research concentrates on the moments before photography, on the time when the term shashin was used in the context of herbal research conducted by the Shôhyaku-sha, a group of Japanese medical herbalists who were trying to identify all plants that existed in the Chinese and Dutch medical literature, and to confirm their presence in Japan. In order to be able to confirm the concrete presence of specific plants, the herbalists ink-rubbed the leaf (or other parts of the plant), and then used the plant as a stamp to imprint the leaf onto a sheet of paper, as an actual confirmation of the plant’s existence in Japan. These ink imprints were called shashin (or sometimes shin’ei真影), and were an important part of the Shôhyaku-sha work on herbs in Japan. However, the actual record of identification of the plant consisted of three elements: the ink imprint; a descriptive, hand-painted (sometimes woodblock or copper plate) illustration; and a textual explanation of the plant recorded in the ink print, making the trio of concrete evidence, visual representation, and word-based description the full evidence of their research and the proof on the evidence of the plant in Japan.
On the other hand, the term shashin was also used by the Japanese scholar and painter Shiba Kôkan 司馬江漢 (1747-1818) in his book on Western painting (seiyo gadan 西洋画段) as early as 1799. In contrast to the Shôhyaku-sha’s application of the term in the context of concrete evidence of presence, Kôkan applied the term to describe Western-style painting with its special attributes of linear perspective and shading, creating three dimensional objects placed on an illusionary plane of the painting surface. Kôkan describes the Western-style method of painting and its means of representation as superior to the Chinese and Japanese methods of paintings, which he dismisses as “childish” (171-172).
The final chapter of Fukuoka’s book is a very fine textual embroidery, showing how the two concepts of shashin – that of Western painting as described by Kôkan, and that of the ”concrete evidence” à la Shôhyaku-sha, were combined together, under the governmental institutions at the capital that were seeking pictorial and visual methods to better “govern the people.” This process, mainly conducted by Keisuke, successfully acquired Western technologies and knowledge, coalescing in photography as a central tool for description, representation, and concretely evidencing the presence of subjects and objects within bureaucratic procedures of registration and governance in Japan. Hence, Fukuoka’s book ends with the moment of the birth of photography as a medium in Japan, bringing together the varying sources of the term and their presence in Japanese culture before the photographic moment. The Premise of Fidelity is therefore an invaluable text in understanding the modes and manners of how Western technology was assimilated into existing modes of visuality and conceptual methods of analysing and concretizing visual material, thereby creating a document of immense value to research on the history of photography in Japan in particular, and other non-Western cultural centres, in general.
This book is a must for anyone interested in the intellectual and conceptual roots of the photographic practice in Japan. It is so well written that I read it like a thriller – the complex plot is revealed in every chapter as Fukuoka follows, step by step, the different characters and their deeds as their actions influenced the conceptual future of photography as a medium in Japan. The multifaceted narrative and the personalities of Itô Keisuke, Iinuma Yokusai, and Takahashi Yuichi, and the complexities of the process of making the term shashin the prevalent term for “photography” in Japan, are revealed gradually, with important discussion and clarifications of every stage and their difference from earlier ones. The book marks the significance of conceptual inquiry, the understanding of the medium before it was even born, looking into its genealogy, and the “genes” carried from the past into its creation as a central medium for Japanese visual culture. Fukuoka’s book’s most important value comes from its successful indication of continuity, making the idea of “photography” coherent within the Japanese cultural sphere, crossing the common barriers that assume the medium to be an imported one. Her varying investigations into the history of the term, rather than the technology or the images, is a very fruitful method that enlightens those studying photography to adopt a new approach to the medium and its centrality within modern and contemporary Japanese culture.
Fukuoka’s research can be beautifully linked to a previous work by Hirayama Mikiko, who looked into the terms shumi (趣味 elegance) and shûyô (修養discipline) and their importance within the pictorial photography tradition in early 20th century (1903-1920) Japan. While Hirayama’s enlightening work places a special importance on the artistic practice of “pictorialism” in Japan, and the specificity of this trend to the Modern, late-Meiji/Taishô eras, Fukuoka’s research is an overall work that is really able to go beyond the specificity of a certain period and the association of photography with the influence of the West in Japan, to establish a local understanding of the medium that goes beyond the Western understanding of “light writing” to a system that recognizes the concreted evidence, or the indexical value of photography as its main value. Hence, “tracing truth” became the dominant concept of photography as a concretization of presence (in the indexical sense of the word) over the idea of light mechanically creating pictorial presentation, as the term is commonly used in Western languages. I think that Fukuoka’s research calls for another major scrutiny into the genealogy of the term satsuei 撮影 which at the present time is the preferred professional term for the act of photographing, and the one that has a strong link to modern Chinese applications of the term (sheying 摄影) as the preferred general term for “photography.”
Dr. Ayelet Zohar is a Lecturer in the East-Asian Studies Dept., Tel Aviv University and University of Haifa. A visual culture researcher, trans-disciplinary artist and independent curator, she specializes in the study of contemporary Japanese photography and its historical past. She is on the editorial board of the TAP Review and guest edited the Fall 2011 issue, which was entitled “The Elu[va]sive Portrait: In Pursuit of Photographic Portraiture in East Asia and Beyond”.
Hirayama Mikiko (2005). “’Elegance’ and ‘Discipline’: The Significance of Sino-Japanese Aesthetic Concepts in the Critical Terminology of Japanese Photography, 1903-1923,” in Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere and Mikiko Hirayama, eds., Reflecting Truth: Japanese Photography in the Nineteenth Century (Leiden, Netherlands: Hotei Publishing, 2004), 98-108.