How Vividly Colorized Photos Helped Introduce Japan to the World in the 19th Century

Since the mid-20th cen­tu­ry hey­day of Sony tran­sis­tor radios, the world has asso­ci­at­ed Japan with high tech­nol­o­gy. But between the mid-17th and mid-19th cen­tu­ry, the world could bare­ly asso­ciate Japan with any­thing at all. The iso­la­tion­ist pol­i­cy of sakoku, or “closed coun­try,” kept the Land of the Ris­ing Sun vir­tu­al­ly free of out­side influ­ence — espe­cial­ly West­ern reli­gious and colo­nial influ­ence — until, in 1853, the Amer­i­can Navy com­modore Matthew Per­ry rolled up in his “Black Ships” and demand­ed an open­ing of its ports. There­after, accord­ing to the Vox Dark­room video above, “for­eign­ers com­ing to Japan brought their clothes, their cul­ture, and their cam­eras.”

The cam­eras in par­tic­u­lar made it pos­si­ble for every­one around the world to final­ly get a glimpse of this mys­te­ri­ous island nation they’d pre­vi­ous­ly known only in their imag­i­na­tion. Pho­tog­ra­phy, itself an excit­ing­ly new tech­nol­o­gy at the time, rapid­ly boomed in the new­ly opened Japan as an indus­try.

“Pho­tog­ra­phers — most­ly Euro­pean, but some Japan­ese — doc­u­ment­ed Japan’s land­scape and peo­ple, cre­at­ing col­lectible and high­ly prized images of Japan­ese cul­ture,” first in black-and-white and sub­se­quent­ly with ear­ly col­oriza­tion meth­ods. Then, as would hap­pen over and over again in sub­se­quent decades, West­ern tech­nol­o­gy and Japan­ese crafts­man­ship unit­ed to take it to the next lev­el.

An Ital­ian-British pho­tog­ra­ph­er named Felice Beato “made expert-qual­i­ty hand-col­or­ing the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of this era of Japan­ese pho­tog­ra­phy,” draw­ing on a “large body of high­ly trained arti­sans from the ukiyo‑e wood­block print indus­try.” By the time for­eign­ers began using cam­eras to cap­ture images of Japan­ese life, the Japan­ese had already been cap­tur­ing Japan­ese life with ukiyo‑e, or “pic­tures of the float­ing world,” for cen­turies. Pho­tog­ra­phers soon dis­cov­ered they could tap into the “exper­tise of patient pre­ci­sion in the appli­ca­tion of col­or on to flat images that had been in place in Japan for gen­er­a­tions.”

This new wave of Japan­ese “col­or” pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dios set them­selves apart with mas­ter­ful water­col­or­ing that “added to the sense of real­ism in these images, which made them even more col­lectible.” Some pho­tog­ra­phers, such as Kusak­abe Kim­bei, got even more artis­tic, “stag­ing elab­o­rate, some­times myth­ic scenes of Japan­ese cul­ture” in the stu­dio, then adding not just water­col­ors but oth­er visu­al effects: in Girl in Heavy Storm, the pho­to­graph above, “the ‘rain’ is sim­u­lat­ed by scratch­es into the glass plate neg­a­tive.” Her kimono is also pinned in places to the back­ground, all in the name of cap­tur­ing anoth­er of the indus­try’s “sup­pos­ed­ly typ­i­cal scenes of Japan­ese life.” Even when it’s right before your eyes, Japan is in the imag­i­na­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Hand-Col­ored Pho­tographs from 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan: 110 Images Cap­ture the Wan­ing Days of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Soci­ety

Down­load Hun­dreds of 19th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Wood­block Prints by Mas­ters of the Tra­di­tion

Watch Vin­tage Footage of Tokyo, Cir­ca 1910, Get Brought to Life with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

Watch Chill­ing Footage of the Hiroshi­ma & Nagasa­ki Bomb­ings in Restored Col­or

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.