Photography In Japan 1853-1912 And Old Japanese Photographs: Collector's Data Guide

by Matt Damsker

 

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Photography in Japan 1853-1912.
By Terry Bennett. 2006, Tuttle Publishing; 320 pages, 350 plates; ISBN No. 0-8048-3633-7; hardcover; $65 (US). Tuttle Publishing, Airport Business Park, 164 Innovation Dr., North Clarendon, VT 05759; phone: 1-802-773-8930; fax: 1-802-773-6993; http://www.tuttlepublishing.com .

Old Japanese Photographs: Collector's Data Guide.
By Terry Bennett. 2006, Quaritch, 308 pages; ISBN No. 10-0-9550852-4-1; hardback. Barnard Quaritch Ltd., 8 Lower John St., Golden Square, London WIF 9AU; phone: 011-44 (0) 20 7734 2983; fax: 011-44 (0) 20 7437 0967; email: rarebooks@quaritch.com ; http://www.quaritch.com .

These extensively documented and finely produced volumes are triumphs for Terry Bennett, a preeminent collector and scholar of vintage Japanese, Chinese and Korean photography. Indeed, London-based Bennett has gone to impressive pains, in 'Photography in Japan 1853-1912,' to gather key images from museums, libraries and private collections, publishing many for the first time and noting in his text how the stylized images of Japan recorded by Western photographers in the medium's early days were often at odds with Japanese reality.

More to the point, the development of photography coincided with the opening up to the Western world of long-insulated Japan, thanks to Commodore Matthew Perry's gunships of 1853. For better and worse, the resulting influx led to Japan's remarkable modernization and to one of the most fertile canvases for the world's photographers. Bennett organizes this epochal story with expected rigor, noting that until a few years ago, it was thought that the first photos of Japanese subjects were taken in 1853 by Commodore Perry's official photographer, Eliphalet M. Brown. But Bennett's own scholarship--and a collector's passion--has established that several key daguerreotypes, including images of castaway Japanese sailors who wound up on the Pacific Coast of the U.S., very likely preceded Brown's early images.

Such detailed and authoritative work defines this study, which moves from the seminal photography of Brown and Edward Kern to the establishment of the Western studios that began to dominate and stylize Japanese photo-imagery in the 1860s. By the 1870s, of course, Japanese photographers had begun to compete with the Western interlopers, as the likes of Shinichi, Tamosu, Kozaburo, Kimbei, and Kazamasa established studios that would soon dominate--and bring a new level of realism and inspiration to Japanese images. Throughout, Bennett does an admirable job of delineating the tension of this East-West aesthetic and commercial competition, but it is the work itself that matters most--the marvelous hand-colored prints, the exquisite and dramatic depictions of samurai, geisha, street and domestic life, and the pastoral wonder of the countryside as cherry blossoms frame a view of Mt. Asama. This book is an important new reference for any serious student or collector of vintage Japanese art.

So is Bennett's companion work, 'Old Japanese Photographs: Collector's Data Guide', an initially unintended outgrowth of his extensive research for 'Photography in Japan,' which yielded so many new facts that it became impossible for Bennett to include everything in one book. Thus, Bennett decided that the key historical text and photographs should be included in the main book, with the photo lists, reproductions of historical articles, and technical appendices moved to a separate volume of more granular interest to specialists and the most serious of collectors. The data guide contains countless curiosities, included a wonderful section print advertisements placed by Japanese photographers in the directories and photo handbooks of their day.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.