Snapshots of Japan

By Fraser, Karen | Art Journal, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Snapshots of Japan

Fraser, Karen, Art Journal

Snapshots of Japan

Anne Wilkes Tucker, Dana Friis-Hansen, Kaneko Ryuichi, and Takeba Joe. The History of Japanese Photography. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2003. Includes essays by Iizawa Kotaro and Kinoshita Naoyuki. 432 pp., 356 color ills., 50 b/w. $65.

Histories of photography written in English have largely neglected the development of the medium in non-Western countries. The History of Japanese Photography endeavors to expand the usual Eurocentric focus by providing the first wide-ranging English-language examination of photography in Japan from its inception to the twenty-first century. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in the spring of 2003, this beautifully illustrated catalogue will be welcomed by many as a significant contribution to the literature on the field.

In her introductory essay, Anne Wilkes Tucker, Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, provides a historical context for the catalogue through a survey of Western publications on and exhibitions of Japanese photography. As Tucker points out, the history of Japanese photography has had a relatively short existence as a field of study in its own right, even within Japan. It was not until well after World War II that the discipline garnered much serious interest and not until the 19805 that widespread institutional support allowed for significant advances in research. Since the 1970s, the work of Japanese photographers has been featured in a number of exhibitions and books in both Japan and the West. However, much of the focus has been on post-World War II photography. The most comprehensive English-language publication to date was A Century of Japanese Photography, 1840-1945, a translation of a 1971 Japan Photographers Professional Society volume, published in 1980 with an introductory essay by John W. Dower. It is worth noting that even within Japan an exhibition covering the scope of the Houston show has never been organized. Tucker articulates the need for a nation-based survey of Japan, an issue sure to be a main point of contention among critics of this text. Asserting that most Japanese photography recognized in die West has been "assimilated into an international frame of reference that pays little attention to the national traditions and contemporary context from which it arose" (2), Tucker argues that such interpretations limit understanding and "needlessly [diminish] the levels on which the work may be approached" (13).

The catalogue presents a standard chronological survey in six essays by five noted scholars. Kinoshita Naoyuki, Professor of Cultural Studies at Tokyo University, examines the second half of the nineteenth century in "The Early Years of Japanese Photography." Portraits and landscape comprised the earliest genres, along with the scenic views and contrived images of Japanese customs made for Western audiences, while later uses included documenting frontier expansion and collections of national treasures. Kinoshita highlights some uniquely Japanese uses of photography as well. These included the promotion of the study of photography by Japanese authorities during the 1850s and 1860s as one of many branches of Western technology to be mastered in order to modernize the country (22-23), and photographic portraits as replacements for miei, traditional painted portraits of the deceased (27).

As in other countries, art photography flourished once technical innovations in cameras, film, and printing permitted amateurs to make photographs. Kaneko Ryuichi, guest curator of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography since its inception in 1990, traces art photography from the 1890s to the 1930s in "The Origins and Development of Japanese Art Photography." The upper levels of society practiced art photography during the 1890s, but by the 1920s cheap cameras and how-to manuals transformed the medium "from the intellectual hobby of the affluent into a mass activity of the urban population" (no). …

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