The Trans-Asia Photography Review is pleased to publish summaries and reviews of symposia, conferences, panels and workshops on topics related to photography in Asia. In addition to the symposia summarized here, summaries of the symposia on 19th Century photography in India held at the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts can be found via their website at and abstracts from the Facing Asia conference (National Gallery of Australia, August 2010) can be downloaded at Please send information on other meetings that could be summarized to the Editor at

This issue features two summaries and two commentaries:

  1. Facing Asia: A Report, by Geoffrey Batchen
  2. Global Photography and Its Histories (Rutgers University, February 8, 2011)
  3. Transcultural Visuality: Photography in East Asia (College Art Association Annual Conference, February 2011)
  4. Commentary on the "Transcultural Visuality" Panel, by Mikiko Hirayama

Facing Asia: a Report

Geoffrey Batchen

Facing Asia: Histories and Legacies of Asian Studio Photography An International Conference. Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, Canberra

August 21-22, 2010

Graciously organized by Luke Gartlan and Gael Newton (the first an expert on Japanese Meiji photography who teaches at the University of St Andrews in Edinburgh, and the second the Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra), this conference brought together scholars from Australia, the USA, Canada, India, Japan and Europe to present papers on various aspects of Asian photography. It was immediately striking that “Asian Photography” is a very broad category, apparently encompassing photographers in Australia and the United States as well as practitioners working in India, China, Japan, Indonesia and Thailand. Every talk focused on vernacular photography. Even a presentation on her own work by Bangalore artist Pushpamala N. could be described in these terms, given the degree to which that work draws on already popular Indian conventions and codes. The conference therefore made a statement from the outset, presuming that the most distinctly Asian elements of the photography produced in that region of the world are to be found in commercial and ordinary practices, rather than in fine art.

The papers varied widely in topic, although almost all of them were based on new research, such is the nascent state of the field. Sebastian Dobson, for example, tried to displace the usual emphasis in Western histories of Japanese photography on the treaty port of Yokohama by looking instead at the career of a Tokyo-based photographer named Matsuzaki Shinji. Matsuzuki was particularly notable for publishing a pamphlet in 1886 titled Shashin Hitsuyo: shakyaku no kokoroe [The Essentials of Photography: Dos and Don’ts for the Photographic Customer]. This text, Dobson argued, “is particularly useful in analyzing the extent to which a distinctively ‘Japanese’ approach to studio photography developed.” Susie Protschky, in contrast, looked at photographs of Theeuurtje or “tea time” taken as family portraits by Asians and Indo-Europeans in colonial Indonesia, images that frequently appear in albums from that period. Protshcky presented these family snapshots as “ego documents” or self-representations in which a European status was insistently reiterated and performed for the camera. Richard Kent examined a number of portrait photographs made in China in the early twentieth century that include a colophon and inscription with the image, as if to extend a more familiar painting tradition in which text and image often interact. Such inscriptions, one of which listed every thing the subject wore, and even the color of those things, forestall any erasure of identity through the reduction of this subject to a type, turning these photographs into family mementos with both personality and emotional resonance.

Suryanandini Narain presented a genre of portrait photograph commissioned in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by women seeking a suitor in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. These portraits, many made both for and by women, were carefully designed to enhance beauty and hide any flaws. Their study, Narain suggested, helps give visual form to “the dynamics of gender in a period of historic transformation in the subcontinent.” Lady Erb Bunnag, a favored concubine of King Chulalongkorn in Siam, also practiced photography, documenting domestic life within the royal palace. As Leslie Ann Woodhouse explained, one series of eight photographs documented the ethnic differences exhibited by another concubine, Dara Rasami. These photographs represent, therefore, a local cataloguing of difference, even within this intimate setting. Difference was also central to Gartlan’s presentation, focused as it was on the sometimes tense relations of Japanese and Western photographers in the Meiji era. He contrasted Baron Raimund von Stillfried, who at one point ensured that each of his 38 Japanese studio assistants was assigned a specialist task so that none could leave and set up in competition, with Usui Shusaburo, who ended up employing a foreigner, David Welsh, to work for him in 1879 (to sell Usui’s prints in hotels catering for Westerners). According to Gartlan, Usui’s work imitated that of von Stillfried at first, but then sought to challenge this received aesthetic by establishing his own.

Wendy Garden’s paper again addressed itself to tensions between the West and indigenous culture, in her case concentrating on photographic portraits of two Indian princes, Sir Mahtub Ali Kahn, Nizam of Hyderabad, and Maharaja Ram Singh II of Jaipur. These portraits were made after 1857, in response to British anxieties about the loyalty of the indigenous ruling class, and often featured the wearing of British medals. Some, however, stressed a local dress and pose and were taken by Indian-born photographers, as if to insist on their difference. This talk was nicely complemented by a display by Newton of recently acquired Indian portraits at the National Gallery of Australia. Other papers looked in detail at particular studios. Yi Gu, for example, analysed the Baoji Studio in Shanghai, established in 1888, and in particular discussed its attempt to establish “aesthetic standards of photography that were unmistakeably Chinese.” Roberta Wue focused on the portrait work of Milton M. Miller, an American photographer active in Hong Kong, Canton and Japan in the early 1860s, work, she said, that presents “an intriguing and unique investigation into issues of group identity.” Maki Fukuoka looked more broadly at the area known as Asakusa in Tokyo, a suburb occupied by as many as 40 studios in the 1880s, businesses that, she argued, were “themselves spaces of performance.” H. Tiffany Lee drew attention to a peculiar photographic genre mentioned in a 1925 essay by the Chinese scholar Lu Xun, involving the making of portraits of “twos.” Lee argued, among other things, that “the figure of the double functioned as a cipher for the technology of photography and its properties for mechanical reproduction.”

As this very partial selection suggests, the photographic practices highlighted by this conference were diverse and thought provoking. A concluding roundtable of participants agreed that there was a surprising amount of overlap between presentations from otherwise different parts of the world. The focus on the studio as a site of commercial practice gave speakers some common ground, as well as some temporal boundaries, with most papers looking at work from the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. The studio was found to be a space that was simultaneously personal, theatrical, political and economic, often demonstrating fraught relations between each of these possibilities. Another frequent emphasis was on the photograph’s symbiotic relationship to texts, whether these be manuals, signatures, captions, advertisements, inscriptions or titles. Although speakers were excited by the richness of the field sketched by the conference, many also conceded that a huge amount of research remained to be undertaken, especially on the technical development of photography in particular parts of Asia.

John Clark, a specialist in modern Asian art, raised a troubling but crucial question during his otherwise idiosyncratic summation. Does the introduction of photography indeed mark a turning point of some kind in modern Asian cultural life? Or is photography’s significance—the very significance assumed and reiterated by this conference, and indeed by this journal—an invention of Asian photo-history itself, insisted on by a field of academic inquiry still insecurely seeking to establish a distinctive identity and reason for being? Clark argued that the most important dates for the development of Asian culture in the nineteenth century were 1857, the Indian Uprising, and 1869, the opening of the Suez Canal, with the advent of photography having little discernable effect. Indeed, he suggested that a focus on a single medium is to misunderstand the multi-media nature of Asian cultures, and especially the way that images are disseminated within them. The conference finished, therefore, by posing a question about it own most basic premise, asking whether “Asian photography” is even a category that can or should be distinguished from the broader field of visual culture in that region. Is there anything unique about photographs, such that they deserve to be studied in a ghetto? It is surely a question worthy of further debate, perhaps at some future conference or within these pages.

Geoffrey Batchen

Geoffrey Batchen teaches the history of photography as Professor of Art History at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

Note: The abstracts of papers presented at the Facing Asia conference can be downloaded at>.


Global Photography & Its Histories

A symposium held on Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick


This afternoon symposium belongs to a series of public events organized by the Developing Room, a working group at the Rutgers Center for Cultural Analysis devoted to the study and practice of photography. The three speakers and two moderators will reflect on what it means to write national, regional, and global histories of photography. Why are such histories written? How do they challenge Western conceptions of the photographic medium and dominant narratives in the field of photography studies? What new challenges do geographically and culturally expansive histories create by bringing into dialogue photography and photographies, global and local, national and transnational, majorities and minorities, cultural identity and cultural difference?


Tanya Sheehan and Andrés Zervigón are co-organizers of The Developing Room and assistant professors in the Art History Department at Rutgers.

Currently serving as photography field editor for the online journal, Tanya Sheehan teaches courses at Rutgers on art and science, race and representation, and the history of photography. She is the author of Doctored: The Medicine of Photography in Nineteenth-Century America (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), which explores the relationship between studio portrait photography, medical discourse, and social identity. Sheehan recently edited the exhibition catalogue, From Ethiopia to New Jersey: Photography and HIV/AIDS (Johnson & Johnson Corporate Art Program, 2010). She is now writing a book that examines ideas about race in transatlantic photographic humor, selections of which are forthcoming in Photography and Culture and an edited volume, Feeling Photography. For this project she has received fellowship support from the Leslie Humanities Center at Dartmouth College, the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and the American Antiquarian Society/National Endowment for the Humanities.

Andrés Zervigón teaches the history of photography at Rutgers and researches the interaction between photography, film, and fine art. His work generally focuses upon moments in history when these media prove inadequate to their task of representing the visual. Zervigón's first book, John Heartfield: The Agitated Image (forthcoming, University of Chicago Press) examines the Weimar-era work of this German artist and the crisis of photographic representation generating his highly political photomontage technique. His second book project, Photo-Ambivalence, focuses on the broader subject of interwar German photography. It proposes that the era’s remarkable creativity in photography arose from mixed feelings about the medium’s escalating power on mass audiences. Zervigón has recently published articles and reviews in New German Critique, Visual Resources, History of Photography and Rundbrief Fotografie, and he is contributing to the catalogue Avant-Art in Everyday Life (Art Institute of Chicago, 2011).  


Geoffrey Batchen, “Beyond Recognition? Writing Photography’s National Histories”

In 1874 the German government sent an expedition of astronomers to the Auckland Islands, off the southern coast of New Zealand, in order to observe and record the transit of Venus across the sun. In order to ensure that their records were as accurate as possible, the expedition included a prominent photographer, Hermann Krone, who developed the Auckland Dry Process to suit the conditions and used it to photograph both the local landscape and the transit. Where should we locate those photographs? Do they belong, for example, within a history of New Zealand photography? What are the stakes in the answer, for this or any other nation-based history of photography?

This paper will argue that the stakes are high indeed, if only because to explain the relationship of photography to context is to define the medium itself. Where are photography’s boundaries to be fixed? How are we to distinguish a photograph from what it’s of or from the exigencies of its use in a particular situation? Given its dependence on the world of which it is a trace, what are the limits and capacities of photography’s own agency as a representational system? To reflect on the arcane matter of what does or doesn’t belong in a history of New Zealand photography is, in other words, to try and account for the complicated spacing of inside and outside that decides any and every identity formation.

The recent appearance of books about the photography produced in Egypt and Indonesia—following on from the publication of histories of the photography of Denmark, The Netherlands, Australia, China, and Norway—gives these issues a pragmatic frame. Could the writing of regional or national histories be a way of rethinking the history of photography as a discipline, threatening to transform it beyond recognition? The parameters of this field are now, at last, being stretched to include the entire globe (or so it sometimes seems). But is the nature of the field itself--its ambitions, methods of analysis, narrative structures and objects of interest--also undergoing radical change? This paper will pursue these questions through a reflection on both the specificities of an antipodean history of photography and this bevy of recent publications.

Geoffrey Batchen teaches the history of photography as a Professor of Art History at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He has published widely on early, vernacular and contemporary photographic practices. His books include Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (The MIT Press, 1997); Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (The MIT Press, 2001); Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance (Van Gogh Museum & Princeton Architectural Press, 2004); William Henry Fox Talbot (Phaidon, 2008) and Suspending Time: Life, Photography, Death (Izu Photo Museum, Japan, 2010). He has also edited Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (The MIT Press, 2009) and co-edited Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis (Reaktion, 2011). Batchen is currently working on exhibitions about the introduction of commercial photography in Britain (for the Yale Center for British Art) and on the photographic experience in colonial Australia and New Zealand (for the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne).

John Peffer, “The Dependency of South African Photography”

This talk speaks to contradictions and lacunae in claims made about a "South African Photography" as it is defined in recent writing by photographers and historians. We here now know about South Africa in large part from seeing its well-traveled apartheid-era social documentary photography. On its own, this archive of images is not adequate in two respects. For viewers abroad it does not reflect the range of lived historical experience in South Africa. And it tells us little about how specific kinds of photographic images have been seen and understood in South Africa itself. Is a singular global interpretation possible for these images? Are global histories inevitably unstable ones, dependent upon other shifting histories of images at each new site of reception in each location and time? This talk approaches such questions by focusing primarily on how the local significance and even the contents of what is now understood (through a common narrative) to be a "South African photography" have been preceded, informed, and supplemented by other types of pictures in other media over time. My examples include 1930s portraits of "native life," 1950s photojournalism from the magazine Drum, and anti-apartheid images from the 1980s, along with contemporary imagery in painting and graphic art.

John Peffer is Assistant Professor of African and Contemporary Art at Ramapo College in New Jersey. His research has examined the historiography of African Art History, art and visual culture in South Africa during apartheid, and general issues of global modernity and human rights in art, photography, and visual culture. His book Art and The End of Apartheid was published by University of Minnesota Press in 2009. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the Andy Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital Arts Writers’ Grant, a Fulbright IIE award, and the College Art Association Millard Meiss book prize. His essays have appeared in the journals Cabinet, Visual Anthropology Review, Third Text, African Arts, RES, Art Journal, and Rethinking Marxism, and in the exhibition anthologies Looking Both Ways (Museum for African Art, 2003) and Through African Eyes (Detroit Institute of Arts, 2010). He was co-curator of Translation/Seduction/Displacement: Post-Conceptual and Photographic Work by Artists from South Africa (New York, White Box, 2000), and a founding editor of Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture.

Karen Strassler, “Global Genres, National Imaginaries: Postcolonial Indonesian Studio Portraiture and Identity Photographs”

How have global photographic genres and practices participated in the fashioning of national imaginaries, subjects, and communities? What alternative flows and circuits complicate a narrative of photography’s history as a unidirectional movement from metropole to colony and, hence, conventional narratives of modernity? How can we keep in view both “photography” and “photographies,” that is, acknowledge photography’s coherency and reach as a global technology and its specificity when taken up in particular locations and cultural contexts? This paper will address these questions through reference to two genres of photographic practice that have played a key role in the imagining of national belonging in postcolonial Indonesia: studio portraiture and identity photographs.

Karen Strassler teaches anthropology at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research focuses on images, visuality, and media in postcolonial Indonesia. Her first book, Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and Indonesian National Modernity (Duke University Press, 2010), examines how everyday photographic practices have shaped the ways people in urban Java have come to see themselves as Indonesians. Her current research examines media, images, and political communication in post-Reformasi Indonesia. The project traces the contours of Indonesia's political imaginaries in the aftermath of authoritarian rule and illuminates the unsettled nature of evidence and authority in the age of decentralized, unregulated, consumer media and digital reproduction.  Other interests include memory and history, technology, material culture, semiotics, transnational ethnic minorities (particularly Chinese), cosmopolitanism and nationalism, and Southeast Asia.


This symposium was made possible by support from the CCA, the School of Arts and Sciences, the Art History Department, and the Center for Race and Ethnicity. Tanya Sheehan and Andrés Zervigón would also like to thank the symposium speakers; Jonathan Kramnick,Meredith McGill, and Curtis Dunn at the CCA; graphic designer Patrick Sheehan; participants in the Developing Room; and students enrolled in the “Contemporary Photography” and “Vernacular Photography” seminars for their invaluable contributions to this event.


Transcultural Visuality: Photography in East Asia

Panel Presentation at the College Art Association 99th Annual Conference

Panel organizer: Ayelet Zohar, PhD, Lecturer, University of Haifa

Introductory Remarks: Ayelet Zohar

The session focused on photography, as an image making procedure, which reached East Asia close to the time of the first experimentations and its commencement in Europe, in the mid- 19th century. This was a unique opportunity to take part in the shaping of the field by artists across East Asia who took an interest in the newly introduced medium. In doing so, many of these practitioners added to the developing language of photography, contributing from their respective aesthetic vocabulary, drawing from particular visual cultures, adding to technical and conceptual developments of the field. Photography, therefore, developed as a truly transcultural medium, with contributions from different cultures that melded together to shape its discourse.

Looking into and comparing theoretical writings on Chinese ink-painting from the 5th century to contemporary critical theory on photography, I find that theoretical links can be established between three common issues that link ink-painting and contemporary discourses on photography: monochrome tonality, simulacral imagery and the performative action.

The monochrome tonality relates to Vilem Flusser’s argument that black-and white photographs produce a conceptual world of images, signifying a theoretical quality of the photograph, beyond its immediate visuality;[1] In parallel, stands the long commitment of ink-painters to use ink only, as a monochrome method that extracts the important features of the image depicted, to create a conceptual image that relates to the “core” and “bones” of the image, rather than using coloring as means of “false make-up”.[2]

The simulacral nature of the photograph was discussed by Rosalind Krauss[3] and Gilles Deleuze,[4] who emphasize the nature of the photograph as a “false copy”, which works as “a copy of a copy”. This discussion is echoed in long term debates on the nature of copying and tracing of ink-paintings of classic art in China and Japan, the merits of this practice, and what really makes a copy a good piece of art.

Finally, it is the question of photography as a performative (rather than representational) act that occupies the writings of David Green[5] and Joanne Lowry,[6] who state that the act of photographing involves a performance of being present in front of the camera (and the act of shooting a picture). This performative procedure underlies the primary conditions of the photograph. In China, it was always the activity of the painter, the movement of the brush, the performance preceding the painting that counted. All classical commentators on painting, such as Xie He, Jing Hao and Guo Joxi, write extensively on brush-work, and how the movement of the brush generates from the performance of the artist, which imprints its traces onto the paper, as painting. This indexical moment of the performative is what enables the photograph, as well as the ink-painting, to become a visual presence.

Translating “Photography”: The Migration of the Conception of ‘Sajin’ (寫眞) from Portrait to Photograph

Hye-ri Oh, PhD Candidate, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This paper examines the emergence of the Korean conception of sajin for photography in the late 19th century. The terminology sajin (寫眞) — literally meaning ‘transcription of truth’— was originally in circulation for the forms of portraiture in classical texts. Rather than focusing on the global dispersion of something unproblematically called “photography,” this paper seeks to trace the migration of the meanings and values of the term sajin as a means to assimilate the products of camera technologies to Korean culture and to deal with the social, political, cultural impact of photographic practices, especially after the abandonment of Chosŏn’s national seclusion policy in 1873. This paper raises a set of questions: What was the “truth” inherent in the term sajin? And how was the concept of sajin transformed by its extension to photography in the late nineteenth century in Korea?

In examining the moment of shift in the connotations of sajin and its extension to photography, what remains clear is that the introduction of photography to Korea was, to a considerable extent, mediated by expanding contact with Japanese culture and industry. In this context, this paper draws attention to what is held in common in the linguistic translation of “photography” — sajin (Korean) and shashin (Japanese) — and its parallel discourses in Korea and Japan. By considering the concept of photography as a discursive construction, this paper highlights the systems of meaning invested by social, political and cultural conditions not only inside Korea but also inside Japan of the late 19th century that framed the Korean concept of photography.

Traveler-as-Lama Photography and the Fantasy of Transformation in Tibet

Namiko Kunimoto, PhD, Assistant Professor, American University, Washington DC

This essay examines photographs that appeared in books written by early 20th-century travelers to Tibet. It pays special attention to images of cultural cross-dressing by Theos Bernard (the self-styled “White Lama”), the Japanese monk Kawaguchi Ekai, and French explorer Alexandra David-Neél. The photographs were marshaled in the books as keys to the “secrets of Tibet,” serving to authenticate (and sometimes rupture) the photographer’s travel narrative, and ultimately construct Tibet as a site of personal transformation. Portraits of foreign travelers in Tibetan robes suggest that the writer embodied the religiosity and mystery that Tibet was perceived to contain. Wrapped close to foreign skin, the sartorial staging worked to simultaneously construct and exhibit a legitimating experience. Yet at the same time, the images revealed the ways in which fantasy, too, can be circumscribed by gender, class, and ethnicity.

Envisioning the New Beauty of Woman: Masao Horino's Photographs of Asian Women in the Imperial Era

Masako Toda, PhD Candidate, Tokyo University

This paper explores a little examined body of work by Masao Horino (1907-1998), a leading figure in Japanese modern photography, best-known for his mechanical construction photographs. Horino’s female portraits in the 1930s to the 1940s reflected the colonist/nationalist thinking in wartime Japan. Through his 1938 book, How to Photograph the Beauty of Women (Joseibino Utsushikata) and his photographs of women in Japan and other parts of Asia, he attempted to create a new “beauty of women.” In his eye, beauty was in the modernity of his subjects’ attitude—a strong, independent look—and the local, regional color of each woman. This “beauty” went against the traditional Western view of mysterious, exotic ladies of the Orient. Horino’s portraits mirrored the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere thinking of the then-Japanese government. Similar to the government’s stance, his subjects—both Japanese and women in Japanese colonies—were standing independent and in challenge to the West. Horino’s photographs offer a unique view into the changing image of women in Japan, which was intricately linked with the political thinking, and development of art, dance, and movement of that period.

Shooting as Healing: Pan Dawei’s Photography of Skull and the Alternative History of Chinese Pictorialism

Yi Gu, PhD, Assistant Professor University of Toronto

This paper examines how traditional emotional and poetic tropes in China were explored with the new possibilities brought by art photography through a case study of Pan Dawei (1880 1929). A leading art photographer, talented painter, dramatist, and social refor-mer, Pan is best known for his heroic burial of the revolutionaries who died in the Guangzhou uprising against the Qing Dynasty (1644 1911) in 1911. Among his many photographs featuring symbols of death, the photographs of skull particularly demonstrate his invention of new visual vocabularies that highlight the formal and epistemological characters of the photographic media. The rich formal and iconographical references in his works can hardly be reduced to a binary model of East versus West. Instead, visual sources from local customs, political events, and other art forms constituted multilayered parameters, within which Pan produced photographs with blunt components of death while at the same time retaining ambiguity in their meanings.

Funerary Photo-Portraiture in Japan and Korea

Jeehey Kim, PhD Candidate, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

This paper explores how seemingly similar vernacular photographic practices in Japan and Korea create antagonism toward each other. Funerary photo-portraiture in Korea and Japan refers to portrait photography used in funeral and annual ancestor worship. It is called Yeoungjeong(影幀) in Korean, meaning ‘shadow scroll’ and I-ei(遺影) in Japanese, meaning ‘left/bequeathed shadow’. Intertwining with the local epistemology of death as transformation of being rather than the being’s extinction, funerary photo-portraiture functions a temporary shelter of ancestor god or national deity in the region. This paper examines how national identity is sustained and put into question by funerary photo-portraits used in Yūshūkan, which is a war museum in Yasukuni Shrine precinct as well as in the mourning station for Emperor Showa in Seoul, South Korea. Considering that hostile reactions of Korea toward Japanese practice are related to World War II, this paper aims at showing that both sides miss the U.S. hegemonic power in the region. At the same time, this paper tries to introduce the importance of cross-regional approach in visual culture studies, in order to overcome the ethnocentric national attitudes often inherent in area studies as well as cultural studies of the Other. For the cross-regional approach, this paper does not merely compare two different or similar cultural practices, but aims to investigate how contradictory perspectives toward the Other are established through the model of parallax view, which Slavoj Žižek and Karatani Kojin present as an alternative to the dialectical materialist approach à la Hegel.


Commentary on the “Transcultural Visuality” Panel, CAA Conference, February 2011

Mikiko Hirayama University of Cincinnati

This panel, chaired by Dr. Ayelet Zohar, revealed an alternative approach to photography in modern East Asia that was not necessarily predicated on indexicality or representational authenticity. The papers were intertwined almost like renga or Japanese linked verse, illuminating the intricate cross-cultural dialogue in early East Asian photography. My commentary will therefore extract the common thematic threads between them, addressing “visuality” as “vision as a social fact” after Hal Foster.

The papers by Hye-ri Oh and Jeehey Kim both drew our attention to the trans-Asian discourse embedded in Korean photographic and intellectual history. Hye-ri Oh investigated the transition of the concept of sajin, which came to be adopted as the term for photography in Korea. It became clear that the pre-existing esteem for lifelike portraiture paved the way for the reception of photography, encouraging the Koreans to acknowledge and value the “seemingly natural and direct” portrayal of reality in photography. She also shed light on the transition from the early interpretation of sajin to a more utilitarian, positivist view inspired by the Practical Learning School (sirhak) in the eighteenth century, which led to the adoption of photography as a diplomatic tool in the relations with Japan. Her presentation demonstrated that the early history of Korean photography needed to be investigated in relationship to the autonomous development of Korean art and culture. On the other hand, significant overlaps between Korean and Japanese visual culture emerged from her analysis as well: shared appreciation for lifelike portraiture and the adoption of the Chinese term for such portraiture, xiezhe n (写真), as their word for photography in the nineteenth century. What was outside of these overlaps, and where China would fit into the picture, are topics that require further research.

Jeehey Kim also argued for a more sensitive approach to the interaction of visual and memorial cultures in Korea and Japan. Her paper addressed Korean responses to the display of three different funerary photo portraits: of Emperor Showa, of Japanese soldiers who died in WWII, and of General MacArthur. Based on these images, Kim contended that East Asian photographic culture deviated from the Barthesian notion of how photographed images collapse life and death, a point Yi Gu also touched on in her paper. Funerary portrait paintings had been a well-established practice in East Asia, but as Kim pointed out, the medium of photography gave rise to an entirely new type of visual culture for memorializing the dead. On the one hand, such funerary photo portraits re-invoked the magico-religious implications of portraiture in East Asian art despite its association with modern visuality. On the other hand, this magico-religious quality also allowed the Japanese authorities to effectively incorporate funerary photo portraits into state mourning rituals for the war dead. Kim thus brought to light how such funerary photo portraits in Japan were co-opted into a modern political agenda of colonization and cultural subjugation. Her analysis of the funerary images also illuminated the arbitrary nature of identity construction, whether for the nation-state or the individual. In addition, she rightfully pointed out that the political implications of funerary photo portraits of the casualties from WWII have not been adequately investigated by Japanese art historians. One additional factor in the continued controversy over Emperor Showa’s funerary photo portraits is the history of imperial portraits in Japan. Until the 1870s, imperial portraits were seldom made available to the public. This tradition changed with Emperor Meiji (1852-1912), who became the first Japanese monarch whose portraits in photography and lithography became accessible to the public even before he was dead.[1] Treated as a sacred object containing his spirit, the emperor’s official portrait (goshin’ei 御真影 or venerable true shadow, 1889) essentially functioned as a totemic image that visually affirmed Japan’s national polity.

Yi Gu’s examinations of the images of death by Pan Dawei also suggested an alternative to the Barthesian conceptual framework. Her analysis of Pan’s skull image, in relationship to the historical context of early twentieth-century Chinese politics, uncovered the traumatic experience of a failed revolution and Pan’s resulting obsession with death. It was evident that his later works, especially his strongly performative self-portraits as a dead man, still fell into the pictorialist idiom in a broader sense. But at the same time, as Gu demonstrated, he utilized photography’s ability to visualize “the illusionary,” particularly “the boundary between life and death.” He cultivated this anti-positivist approach to photography through the idea of the Mysterious School (shenmipa i 神秘派), a concept that is extremely evocative and deserves more elaboration vis-à-vis contemporary Chinese photography and painting. Pan’s work thus harkened back to the magico-religious origin of portraiture in East Asian art--in other words, the idea of “conveying the spirit by reproducing the appearance” (chuanshen xiezhao 伝神写照). His artistic principles are also akin to those by Kishida Ryūsei (岸田劉生 1891-1929), a Japanese oil painter known for eerily tactile images of still life and portraiture. In the mid-1920s, he wrote extensively about “Inner Beauty” (uchinaru bi 内なる美) and explored the realm of intangible beauty through his hyper-real paintings. He was heavily indebted to bird and flower paintings of the Song and Yuan Dynasties and even used the word “mystery” (shinpi; Ch. shenmi 神秘) in his essays frequently.[2] Such parallels in the re-examinations of modernity by artists of different cultures and different media represent another instance of trans-cultural visuality.

Furthermore, the papers by Yi Gu and Jeehey Kim, seen together, yield meaningful insight into trans-Asian photographic practices. Again, Barthes’ theory serves as a point of comparison. Barthes observed that photography could collapse two disparate realms of life and death, so the sitter in a photograph is already dead and to be dead at the same time. As Kim described, a photographed image thus represents “present absence.” By contrast, funerary photo portraits of the war dead visually stabilize the posthumous transformation of the deceased into a god. What is represented therein, in Kim’s words, is “absent presence.” By departing from this world, and not being in the viewer’s physical presence, the deceased attains new existence as a god. Pan Dawei’s photographs, on the other hand, seem to intentionally hover between life and death rather than collapsing these two realms, representing “absent presence” and “present absence” simultaneously. Thus, Gu and Kim revealed different mechanisms of representation at work in East Asian photography. The role it plays in mourning the dead, both figuratively and metaphorically, is markedly different from the photograph of Barthes’ mother. Further analysis is warranted on this issue.

Namiko Kunimoto’s paper on the images of foreigners as Tibetan Lamas also highlighted the performative nature of self-portraits. She revealed how photographs in the books by Theos Bernard, Alexandra David-Néel, and Kawaguchi Ekai represented Tibet as a place of spiritual transformation and also portrayed the authors as spiritually transformed beings. Their portraits reflected dual functions of photography. One was to authenticate their acceptance in Tibetan society and the local Buddhist organization, exploiting people’s association of photography with unmediated reality, and the other was to legitimize their spiritual accomplishment. The latter in fact evokes, yet again, the traditional idea of “conveying the spirit by reproducing the appearance.” Because of its claim to capture tangible reality faithfully, photography was expected to act as a conduit to the intangible spiritual realm. As Kunimoto showed, through these dual functions, the images of Tibet by the three authors managed to emphasize both intimacy and exoticization at the same time. Perhaps a little more explanation of what Tibet meant in early twentieth-century Euro-American popular culture would help us better understand how their photos maintained this hybrid image and satisfied the readers’ desire for a spiritual “other.” In addition, it may be well to acknowledge that Bernard, David-Néel, and Kawaguchi all used similar tactics with their self-portraits despite the obvious difference in Kawaguchi’s identity as an Asian man and an ordained Buddhist priest. Elaborating on these contrasts may bring into sharper relief the colonialist implications in the cultural cross-dressing by the “white lamas.”

Such a colonialist narrative was also present in the work by Horino Masao, which Toda Masako examined. Her paper focused on the images of women in Horino’s 1939 book, How to Photograph Feminine Beauty (Joseibi no utsushikata), and how the concepts of femininity, colonialization, and center/periphery played out in it. Horino’s explorations of feminine beauty reveal how the notion of modernity was redefined and co-opted into the colonialist agenda in wartime Japan. First, Toda contextualized Horino’s interest in feminine beauty, showing us that the rise of avant-garde theater and dance foregrounded women’s bodies as the locus of modernity and glamorized gender ambiguity during the 1920s. She then demonstrated that many of Horino’s images of women in his book, as exemplified by that of a Mongolian woman on horseback, had a somewhat de-sexualized appearance, which subverted the stereotypical image of colonized peoples. It seems to me that this atypical image of the Mongolian woman reflects interest in claiming her strength as the paragon of East Asian vigor. Horino’s goal, in other words, was not to depict Mongolia as a subjugated colony but to utilize it to represent the prosperity of the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. Toda then argued that Horino’s concept of feminine beauty as shown through his images of Mongolian, Chinese, Korean, and Ōshima women resulted from his pursuit of a wholesome, robust beauty among Asian women that could rival the western ideal of feminine beauty. Again, these images imply that the new, modern beauty of Japanese women needed to involve non-Japanese ethnic groups, so as to symbolize the permeation of Japan’s power to the rest of Asia. Though I gathered that Horino recognized modernity in women who exuded self-confidence and individuality, what “modern” ultimately meant to him remained somewhat vague throughout Toda’s paper. One way to help clarify this issue may be to look for parallels in how Japanese art critics, such as Araki Sueo (荒城季夫 1894-death date unknown) and Yokokawa Kiichirō (横川毅一郎 1895-1973), were also forced to re-package their modernist aesthetics as nationalistic statements during the 1930s. Contemporary arguments for eugenics and the promotion of fertility could also provide some insight into Horino’s idea of feminine beauty.

The representation of spiritually and ideologically charged issues such as death, colonization, and nationhood in the work by the photographers discussed on this panel flattened the dichotomy of the national and regional, east and west, self and other, real and imagined, alive and dead, spiritual and secular, and center and periphery. We may recognize as the basis of such a non-dichotomous approach the concept of advaitism or non-duality, which Karatani Kōjin explained as “the oneness of that which is different and manifold.”[3]Furthermore, two pre-modern East Asian aesthetic concepts figured prominently throughout the panel: “conveying the spirit by reproducing the appearance” (Ch. chuanshen xiezhao; Kr. chŏnsinsajo; Jp. denshin shashō) and “transcribing truth” (Ch. xieshen; Kr. sajin; Jp. shashin). But the ways in which they were manifested were by no means uniform. Photographers such as Pan Dawei consciously harkened back to these ideas, resisting the positivist vision of photography. Others, especially Theos Bernard, exploited the magico-religious implications of the medium as well, but also made very astute use of photography as a modern, mimetic representational apparatus. As this panel showed, these pre-modern concepts, which had given rise to gradations in the meanings of reality in East Asian visual culture, also generated diversity in the way early East Asian photographers represented so-called “reality”. Acknowledging these shared values, aesthetics, and epistemology as simultaneous internal developments opens up an avenue for a more levelized narrative of East Asian art history that has broader implications beyond our discipline. The papers on this panel thus challenge us to reconfigure our understanding of photographic representation.

Mikiko Hirayama is Associate Professor of Art History and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Cincinnati.


    1. Flusser, Villem (1983). Towards a Philosophy of Photography, London: Reaktion Books. return to text

    2. Wang Wei (699-759), [夫画道之中,水墨最为上。] from:画学秘诀; Wu Yong (吴蛹) (Tang poet), Mi Fu (米芾) (1051-1107), and Huang Gongwang (黃公望) (1269—1354), Nine principles for Painting Landscape, Trees and Rocks, are all quoted in: Siren Osvald (1968). The Chinese on the Art of Painting, New York: Schocken Books.return to text

    3. Krauss, Roaslind (1984). ‘A Note on Photography and the Simulacral’, October 31, 49-68.return to text

    4. Deleuze, Gilles (1983). ‘Plato and the Simulacrum’, October 27, 45-56.return to text

    5. Green, David (2007) ‘Indexophobia’, in James Elkins (ed) Photographic Theory, London: Routledge, 244-248;return to text

    6. Green, David & Joanna Lowry (2003), ‘From presence to the performative: rethinking photographic indexicality’, in: Where Is The Photograph? David Green (ed.), Brighton: Photoworks/ Photoforum, 47-60.return to text

    7. See Mikiko Hirayama, “Emperor’s New Clothes: Japanese Visuality and Imperial Portrait Photography,” in History of Photography vol. 33, no. 2 (May 2009), pp. 165-184. return to text

    8. See, for example, “Uchinaru bi,” in Kishida Ryūsei, Bi no hontai (Tokyo, Kodansha), 1985, p. 38.return to text

    9. Karatani Kōjin, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, translation edited by Brett de Bary (Durham, NC, Duke University Press), 1993, p. 43.return to text