Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

An Eye for Samurai

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

An Eye for Samurai

Article excerpt


FELICE Beato is known as the world's first war photographer - he took pictures of the Crimean War in the 1850s, and followed British troops through China during the second Opium War in 1860. One of the great adventurers of the Victorian age, Beato travelled the globe in search of interesting views, taking pictures of artillery, men in uniform, trees, flags, pagodas, and, wherever possible, battlefields. He loved conflict, and had a yen for taking pictures of dead bodies. Once, during the Indian Mutiny, he arrived at a battlefield too late, after all the bodies had been buried, and persuaded locals to dig them up again so he could get them into his pictures.

Beato, who grew up in Corfu, was one of the first people to take photographs in Japan, and you can currently see more than 60 of these pictures at the Victoria and Albert Museum's Canon Photography Gallery. Looking at these sombre, posed monochromes, mostly

from the 1860s,you can imagine what kind of man Beato must have been to take them. Here are samurai warriors, nuns, pipe-smoking women getting readyfor bed, sumo wrestlers, a blind masseur, tough guys with sw ords, fancy-looking girls in kimonos. Beato wasn't just snapping these people - to them, he was a weird-looking white guy with a box on a tripod and a team of assistants, who got them to hang around for ages. You can bet he was alw ays on the edge of trouble, and that he lovedit.

Michael Wilson, who owns these prints and is one of the most important collectors of early photography in the world,loves Beato. "He was a very itchy guy," says Wilson, who grew up in Beverly Hills in the 1950s. Wilson believes that the first photographers produced w ork that nobody has since been able to m atch. "People call them primitive," he says, "but I find most photography today to be primitive. It doesn't even compare to this."

W ilson, whose father, Lewis Wilson, was the first actor to play Batman, is also the stepson of the late Cubby Broccoli, who produced the Bond movies. ( Wilson himself is currently a co-producer of the Bond movies.) Dressed in an exquisite silk shirt, with brushed-back grey hair, he has a Sean Conneryish air about him. In his studio in Hampstead, the walls are lined with boxes full of early prints.

One box is labelled "Francis Frith"; another "Atget". He shows me work by W illiam Henry Fox Talbot, who invented photography as we know it. In 1839, Talbot knew that paper treated with silver chloride would react to light, producing a picture if it was exposed for long enough. His greatest moment came when he accidentally put a briefly exposed print in a draw er w hich contained bottles of photographic chemicals, and discovered, days later, that fumes from these bottles had developed an image. "The latent image," says Wilson triumphantly. …

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