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In Portraiture and Early Studio Photography in China and Japan, Luke Gartlan and Roberta Wue have provided a collection of valuable studies on a double topic in need of critical attention.

The editors open the book with an excellent, albeit slightly optimistic and idealistic, introduction. Clearly written, well organized, and nuanced — and instead of a standard and staid literature review — they provide a prescription for how we should approach portraiture in East Asia. They highlight a common, often unstated, theme that studio portraiture in China and Japan was a collaborative venture and imaginative site of production informed by a number of social, political, gender, and aesthetic forces. There are creative, close readings of a handful of images, particularly a lithograph by Wu Youru, making the introduction more an evocative contribution than a traditional descriptive opening to a collection of essays.

The first of three parts is “Studios and Photographers.” Luke Gartlan’s inaugural chapter examines the under-examined career of the photographer and painter Shīmizu Tōkoku (1841–1907) paying particular attention to a small series of genre cartes de visite. The chapter has a double aim: historiographical and archival. More specifically, Gartlan presents a critical reassessment of the life and work of Tōkoku, which the author sees as largely undervalued and overshadowed by that of his contemporaries, who gained attention through the international market. This “archival” reevaluation provides the empirical bedrock for Gartlan’s larger historiographical critique. Tōkoku’s series of genre cartes de visite (woman holding a bucket, woman carrying firewood, for example) has been traditionally misattributed to the Yokohama photographer Shimooka Renjō (1823–1914). The politics of misattribution, Gartlan asserts, is indicative of how early Japanese photography has been separated into two discrete practices: that of “domestic” Japanese photographers for domestic consumption and Yokohama’s “souvenir” photography that produced genre and character types geared toward foreign consumption.

Shifting from the technological exchange narrative (that is, when and who in Japan first had the camera), Gartlan shows through Tōkoku’s work that Japanese photography was the product of internal markets and patronage but also of cross-cultural exchanges in the nation’s treaty ports that enabled “regular interaction between local and foreign photographers, artists, and scholars.” (24) Therefore, approaching early Japanese photography demands a sensitivity to the practitioners’ “broader network,” which includes patrons, scholars, and Japanese and foreign professional associations and calls for sensitivity to the “interconnectedness” among “painting, illustration, photography, lithography, woodblock, and so forth.” (28)

Roberta Wue presents a bold reading of the portraits of the American studio photographer Milton M. Miller (1830–1899) in Shanghai and Canton based on the formalism and counter-formalism of his work, particularly group portraits, the only existing source of his photographs. The author argues that Miller’s studio and the portraits themselves, contrary to late Chinese portraiture by expatriate photographers, functioned as a “contact zone” — that is, “a space of direct encounter and cultural devising” — where American photographer and Chinese customer collaborated to produce a portrait. (42)

Focusing on Ouyang Shizhi’s Powkee Studio in Shanghai, Yi Gu’s contribution is an extraordinarily close examination of the popular large-scale photography studios that operated in China between 1890 and 1920. In addition to a fascinating biography of Shizhi and the story of the success and decline of Powkee itself, the author continues the book’s theme by showing how even a large-scale studio functioned as a multipurpose social space, which also provided a collaborative environment for Shizhi’s clients’ (elite, courtly, and popular) self-fashioning under the creative showmanship, guidance, and marketing of the proprietor.  

In the second section, titled “Sitters and Domestic Markets,” Sebastian Dobson’s contribution is a rarity. He discusses a short guide written by the photographer Matsuzakī Shinjī, accompanied by a preface by Aeba Koson and an afterword by Tsurubuchi Hatsuzo. Whereas many of us are familiar with nineteenth-century manuals that teach the techniques of photography to professionals and amateurs, Matsuzakī teaches the “dos and don’ts” of photography to the consumer. As a special treat, Dobson translated the actual guide, published in 1866, which is appended at the end of the book. Matching the book’s other contributions, Dobson cobbles together a portrait of Matsuzakī as photographer and author. What was particularly evocative about the guide for me is not only that Matsuzakī defines a sitter’s proper dress, attitude, and posture but, as Dobson points out, the photographer also actually addresses the formalistic differences between the photographic portrait and the traditional woodblock print, which predicated the expectations of many of his sitters.

Claire Roberts’s chapter reveals a dialogic interplay, or “intermediality,” between the appearance of photography and other forms of portraiture, particularly those Chinese forms previously influenced by realist painterly techniques that arrived in the preceding centuries. The field of photography studies, in general, has struggled with whether photography has introduced a new mode of seeing, but Roberts’s most fascinating contribution is to flesh out how realist representations of “likeness” was established in painterly practice and discourse, seemingly to set the stage for the arrival of photography as a quasi-artistic practice (as embodied beautifully by the story of Lam Qua’s first encounter with Jules Itier (1802–1877) and his daguerreotype in Canton). The author shows how, rather than resulting in the demise of the painterly portrait, as is often assumed, photography came to inform and, indeed, lend popular and elite commercial success to realist portraiture without undermining the painters’ own artistic and cultural import, which served their own clienteles’ prestige.

Richard Kent moves into Republican China, tracking how, as in so many other parts of the world, photography was critical in self-fashioning. Critically engaging Geoffrey Batchen’s work on hybridized photographs (photographs cross pollinated with writing and other media), however, Kent discusses how inscriptions on photographic portraiture played on the Chinese tradition of portraits flanked by writing, connecting portraits’ subjects to individuals and social groups. In effect, Kent asserts that the inscription adds affective power to animate portraits with an emotional and social life.

H. Tiffany Lee’s chapter centers on the appearance of the uncanny genre of “double,” or erwo tus, picturing of two selves (or “body-out-of-body picture,” as the Powkee studio termed it; 142) in the early Republican era. In contrast to traditional portraiture, Lee suggests that the magical aura of a previous tradition of magical doubling or dividing (fenshen fa) carried over into the double portrait. The author argues that the technique demonstrated the powerful possibilities that the medium of photography offered. Lee’s use of alternative sources, particularly Li Xun, is noteworthy.

Questions of representation frame the third section of the book, “Citizens and Subjects.” Maki Fukuoka offers a counter-narrative not only to the early prestige and use of photography in Japan but to the very historiography of the Meiji Restoration (understanding photography as one more modern technology within the larger, state-sponsored modernization program), a paradigm that “ratifies the Meiji state ideology” itself. (160) Rather than focus on a particular photographer or studio (although she does mention, among others, Shīmizu Tōkoku and Uchida Kuichi [1837–1875]), she approaches photography as a source that allows her to challenge dominant historiography. Specifically, she adopts a series of portraits of the Kabuki performer Sawamura Tanusuke III produced by Uchida’s studio in the Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa. This libertine area was the target of the Meiji bureaucracy’s disciplinary regime. Fukuoka’s argument is that the business owners of Asakusa were able “to advance a visual logic,” a “dissonant seeing,” that “emerges out of the exploration of, and fascination with, optical illusion that play upon a perceived gap . . . between the subject in reality and its representation” (162). While the author suggests this dissonant seeing appears in a number of visual practices (theatrical, woodcutting, and photography, for example), she makes her case through a close reading of the performativity of Tanusuke III’s portraits.

The final two chapters are welcome contributions on gender and sexuality in nineteenth- century photography in Japan and China. Karen Fraser maps the shift from private to public display of portraits in turn-of-the-century Japan. She focuses on a watershed moment when portraits of contestants (bijin, or “beauties”) in Japan’s first nationwide, open-call beauty pageant appeared in the newspaper Jiji shinpō at the invitation of the Chicago Tribune’s worldwide search for the most beautiful woman. Fraser adeptly connects a number of developments — the most important the appearance of new discourses on women with developments in photography and its relationship to print media as a new form of public space, nested within the politics of Japan’s global ascendency as a result of its victory in the Russo-Japanese War. The appearance of the bijin portraits marked a shift in the ways in which Japanese print media used photographic images (including layout and formats of newspapers) and defines a critical development in the commodification of beauty itself, in line not only with capitalist shifts in economy but also with Meiji nationalization of beauty as a form of political and cultural currency.

Joan Judge’s chapter, on the Chinese “Republican Lady” and the courtesan, dialogues with Fraser’s pairing of the ideals of the geisha and the Japanese “new woman.” Judge rigorously juxtaposes two archival sets of photographic images, setting 125 portraits of Republican ladies in China’s first commercial women’s journal adjacent to fifteen hundred portraits of courtesans from three commercial albums, in order to demonstrate the rise in visibility of women through the use of photography, differentiated, however, through a number of cultural and visual codes. The photography album, an object of elite connoisseurship, produced an unprecedented level of visibility for courtesans through a new form of commodification of their image (and their sexuality). This visibility, ironically, permitted the entry of “respectable” women of “good families” into visual culture, notably through the journal Funü shibao, which solicited photographs from its educated, privileged women readers. Although these two sets of portraits have pronounced similarities, Judge carefully maps a number of sign, gesture, and compositional qualities that clearly separated the courtesans from Republican ladies, demarcating “two sets of diverging plotlines for the respective groups of women: the courtesan images evoked exotica and fantasy, whereas the portrait of Republican Ladies signaled stolid, cumulative achievement.” (202)

Portraiture and Early Studio Photography in China and Japan will not provide readers with new theoretical insights into the history of photography or its appearance in East Asia. While this collection is accessible to all, it is certainly composed of essays written by scholars of Chinese and Japanese studies, in one form or another, who remain faithful to the historicity of their archives, sources, and images. With this rigor in mind, for all the mention of markets and commodification throughout the book, some mention of the relationship between image production and commodity production, notably the capitalist economic shifts that undergirded artistic practices, patronage, and commodity circulations, would have been enlightening.

That said, the editors maintain a balance between contributions on Japan and on China. Their organization nicely structures the flow of the chapters, building on issues starting from the empirical and moving toward the representational. The contributors’ attention to photographic technique, composition, circulation, and display is just one common denominator; others are skillfully using contemporaneous print sources and a shared solid fidelity to the photographic image as the anchor of their studies. Although some of these chapters are more original and fruitful than others, they all maintain a high quality and make their own individual contribution to photography studies, our growing understanding of the importance of portraiture, and the emerging histories of photography in China and Japan.


Stephen Sheehi is the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professor of Middle East Studies and Director of the Asian and Middle East Studies Program at the College of William and Mary. He is the author of Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography, 1860-1910 (Princeton, 2016), Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims (Clarity, 2011) and Foundations of Modern Arab Identity (Florida, 2004). Along with Salim Tamari and Issam Nassar, he is also co-author Camera Palaestina: Photographic Albums of Wasif Jawhariyyeh (University of California Press, forthcoming).