1850s Japan Comes to Life in 3D, Color Photos: See the Stereoscopic Photography of T. Enami


For about a quar­ter of a mil­len­ni­um, Japan had a pol­i­cy called sakoku, lit­er­al­ly mean­ing “closed coun­try,” which put to death for­eign­ers who dared enter to Japan, or Japan­ese who dared to leave it. It came to an end with the Mei­ji Restora­tion, the peri­od between 1868 to 1912, dur­ing which Japan put the Emper­or back in charge and, as his­to­ri­ans often say, began to “open up” to the out­side world, light­ing out on the path to its own kind of moder­ni­ty. For­eign­ers would still have had only a vague idea of Japan­ese life at the time — at least those with­out access to a stere­o­scope, and who thus could­n’t lay eyes on the vivid 3D pho­tog­ra­phy of Yoko­hama’s T. Ena­mi.


“To many whose lives revolved around pho­tog­ra­phy — includ­ing both Japan­ese and for­eign pro­fes­sion­als, as well as seri­ous ama­teurs — Ena­mi was not just a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, but a ‘pho­tog­ra­pher’s pho­tog­ra­ph­er,’ ” writes Ena­mi enthu­si­ast Rob Oech­sle on his site t‑enami.org. He also dubs his pho­to­graph­ic hero (who was born Nobuku­ni Ena­mi in 1859 and lived until 1929, see­ing the end of the Mei­ji era but not the begin­ning of the sec­ond world war) “King of the Stere­oview, Mas­ter of the Lantern-Slide, Pro­lif­ic, Anony­mous Con­trib­u­tor To the World of Mei­ji-era Yoko­hama Album Views, Ded­i­cat­ed Street Pho­tog­ra­ph­er, and Hon­ored Alum­nus of Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Mag­a­zine.”


That first title has grant­ed a por­tion of Enam­i’s large body of work a sur­pris­ing recent after­life. Fol­low­ing in his teacher’s foot­steps, Ena­mi refined the Japan­ese use of the stere­o­graph­ic cam­era, a device that pro­duced, writes the Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um’s Zoe Clay­ton, a stere­o­graph: “two pic­tures mount­ed next to each oth­er, viewed with a set of lens­es known as a stere­o­scope.  Tak­en around 7cm apart, rough­ly cor­re­spond­ing to the spac­ing of the eyes, the left pic­ture rep­re­sents what the left eye would see, and like­wise for the right, so when observ­ing the pic­tures through a stereo­scop­ic view­er, the pair of pho­tographs con­verge into a sin­gle three-dimen­sion­al image.”


Adver­tised with slo­gans like “See the world from your par­lor!,” this “opti­cal mar­vel took the world by storm in the mid 19th cen­tu­ry, becom­ing the first ever mass-pro­duced pho­to­graph­ic images sold,” their pop­u­lar­i­ty such that “every Vic­to­ri­an home — regard­less of class — had a stere­o­scope and a col­lec­tion of views.” And though the years have made stere­o­scopes a lit­tle hard to come by, the inter­net has dis­cov­ered that you can enjoy some­thing like the same 3D effect Vic­to­ri­an view­ers did by look­ing at an ani­mat­ed GIF that oscil­lates quick­ly between the left pic­ture and the right one. Ena­mi hand-tint­ed many of his stere­o­graphs, result­ing in col­ored his­tor­i­cal images that look, even in two dimen­sions, star­tling­ly real­is­tic today.


Here we present only a few of Enam­i’s stere­o­graphs, but you can see a much fuller col­lec­tion at Oeschle’s “Old Japan in 3D” Flickr page. He sur­vived 1923’s Great Kan­tō earth­quake, but his stu­dio did­n’t; he rebuilt it and lat­er passed it on to his son, who ran the place until it under­went a sec­ond destruc­tion in 1945 by Allied bombs. Though Enam­i’s name remains known pri­mar­i­ly to fans of Mei­ji-era pho­tog­ra­phy, his posthu­mous rep­u­ta­tion has slow­ly but steadi­ly grown: one of his pho­tos even appeared on the cov­er of the first edi­tion of Odyssey: the Art of Pho­tog­ra­phy at Nation­al Geo­graph­ic. These GIFs have already sparked an inter­est in Enam­i’s work among a new gen­er­a­tion. When 3D mon­i­tors catch on, per­haps he’ll rise to his true place in the pho­to­graph­ic pan­theon.

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hand-Col­ored 1860s Pho­tographs Reveal the Last Days of Samu­rai Japan

Hand-Col­ored Pho­tographs of 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan

Adver­tise­ments from Japan’s Gold­en Age of Art Deco

Glo­ri­ous Ear­ly 20th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Ads for Beer, Smokes & Sake (1902–1954)

Ear­ly Japan­ese Ani­ma­tions: The Ori­gins of Ani­me (1917–1931)

A Pho­to­graph­ic Tour of Haru­ki Murakami’s Tokyo, Where Dream, Mem­o­ry, and Real­i­ty Meet

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • F Again says:

    This a lit­tle close to ani­mat­ed earth­quake pho­tog­ra­phy.

  • Helen McCarthy says:

    These are love­ly, but in what his­tor­i­cal sense do they show 1850s Japan? Ena­mi was­n’t born until 1859, as you say in the arti­cle, and the first sur­viv­ing pho­tos of Japan were not tak­en until 1861. These pho­tos prob­a­bly cap­ture 1870s or 1880s Japan, and are no less mar­vel­lous because of that. Won­der­ful things like Enam­i’s work do not require jour­nal­is­tic fibs to make them more won­der­ful.

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