From the collections: Kusakabe Kimbei – Pictures of Japan in the late 19th century

By Theresa Rodewald (Online Editor)

Even though colour photography is basically as old as the medium itself, it didn't really become popular until the 1930s and 40s. Instead, during the 19th and at the start of the 20th centuries, photographs were meticulously coloured in with paintbrush and pencil.

„Dancers“ (1880-1890), Kusakabe Kimbei, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg ( Museum for Art and Crafts Hamburg) (CC0 1.0)

The most beautifully coloured photographs from this time don't come from Europe or the USA, but rather from Japan. Techniques taken from traditional Japanese craftsmanship make these pictures look especially realistic and give insight into a country that had long isolated itself from foreign countries. One of the most successful Japanese photographers of the late 19th century is Kusakabe Kimbei. His photographs can be found in archives and museums all over the world.

From Kōfu to Yokohama

Kusakabe Kimbei was born in 1841 in Kōfu, which is located relatively centrally on the Japanese main island of Honshū between Nagoya and Tokyo. His family is active in the cloth trade, a business that Kusakabe Kimbei will not continue. He was drawn to Yokohama at a young age. Until 1859, Yokohama was a small fishing village on the east coast of Japan. With the opening of the seaport in the same year, it developed into one of the most important commercial cities in the country.

„Yokohama“ (ca. 1890), Kusakabe Kimbei, Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde e.V., (Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography) Leipzig (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

From 1859 onwards, Yokohama is not only a hub for international trade and travellers from abroad. The city also becomes the centre of Japanese photography. International trade, tourism and photo studios would have been unthinkable in Japan only a few years earlier. Because for more than 200 years, the Japanese Empire had almost completely shielded itself from the outside world.

Delimitation against colonial influence: sakoku

In the 1630s, the Japanese government issued several edicts, which were initially directed primarily against Portuguese and Spanish merchants. In South and Southeast Asia, as well as on the east and west coasts of Africa, the European trade bases pave the way for violent colonisation. The Japanese edicts, on the other hand, prohibit Iberian seafarers from entering Japan. 
Then Catholic missionaries were also to be forbidden entry. Only a few years later, the government generally forbids all foreigners from entering the country and all Japanese from leaving the country. Violation could result in life imprisonment or even the death penalty. The Italian Jesuit Giovanni Battista Sidotti, for example, succeeded in entering Japan in 1708, but spent the rest of his life under strict house arrest.

Although trade with foreign countries is severely restricted, it is never stopped altogether. The Dutch East India Company continues to operate a branch on the island of Dejima in the port of Nagasaki. The Netherlands brings books, medicines and art to Japan, while Japanese arts and crafts, for example, are exported to Europe in return.

"Katabori Netsuke of a Dutchman with Cock and Tobacco Pipe" (19. Century) Stadtmuseum Simeonstift Trier (City Museum Simeonstift Trier) (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

This foreign policy, known in Japan as sakoku ("country closure") or kaikin ("maritime closure"), came to an end in 1854. This year, with the Treaty of Kanagawa, the American commodore Matthew Perry forces the opening of Japanese ports for the supply of American ships. Four years later, the Harris Treaty between Japan and the United States established the opening of some Japanese ports, including Yokohama, to American merchant ships. Trade agreements with England, Russia and France ultimately seal Japan's opening to the West.

Early photography in Japan

Since the late 1850s, merchants and travellers from Europe have been pouring into Japan via the open borders. They bring their culture, clothing as well as photography into the country. The young medium is developing into a lucrative branch of trade for foreigners. Through its closure, Japan and its landscapes, people and culture abroad are considered a mystery. What was formerly forbidden and seemed unattainable suddenly became visible in the 1860s and seems to be within reach through the new photographic medium.

„Japan, street hawkers, load carriersr“ (1863-1868) Felice Beato, Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Art Library, National Museums in Berlin) (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

Photo studios thrive in the international climate of port cities such as Yokohama. The Italian-English photographer Felice Beato also works in a studio there. He makes hand colouration the hallmark of Japanese photography at the time. Hand-coloured photos depicting Japanese landscapes and culture become an international box office hit. Beato and other European photographers make use of the Japanese ukiyo-e industry and its numerous, well-trained artisans. Ukiyo-e primarily refers to colour woodblock prints, but also to paintings and drawings that capture the way of life in Edo Japan (1603-1868).

„Sie scheint einen Spaziergang zu machen: Gepflogenheiten einer Hausfrau der Meiji-Zeit, Blatt 32 aus der Serie: 32 Aspekte von Frauen“ (1888), Taiso Yoshitoshi, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (CC0 1.0)

The Japanese woodblock prints are not drawn in perspective but do have a precise and dynamic colour scheme. Japanese artists contribute this knowledge to the colouration of photographs. Their skillful use of watercolours lends the photographs an authenticity that Western photographs usually lack. In Europe and the USA, hand-coloured photos are more akin to drawings or watercolours. Garments or faces often appear static or painted. In Japanese photographs, on the other hand, they give the appearance of vibrancy.

„Bildnis von Roloff“ (Portrait by von Roloff) (1864), W. Wallnau Photographisches Atelier BERLIN, Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesbibliothek - Landesgeschichtliche Sammlung Landesgeschichtliche Sammlung (Wallnau Photographic Studio BERLIN, Schleswig-Holstein State Library - State History Collection State History Collection) (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The photo studio K. Kimbei

Kusakabe Kimbei also begins his career as a colourist with European photographers. He initially works in the studios of Felice Beato and the Austrian Raimund Stillfried von Rathenitz. In 1880 he opened his own photography studio and became one of the most successful Japanese photographers of the late 19th century. He runs the studio under his first name: "K. Kimbei". The reason for this may be that foreign travellers were able to memorize his first name more easily. The photographs are partly taken in Kusakabe Kimbei's studio in Yokohama, where he stages individual scenes against a painted background. However, most of his photographs show city views, landscapes and popular destinations.

„Noge Hill, Yokohama“ (ca. 1890), Kusakabe Kimbei, Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde e.V., Leipzig. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Kusakabe Kimbei sells the elaborately produced small works of art to tourists either as expensive photo albums or as individual pieces. The motifs and pictorial composition of his photographs are based on the ukiyo-e. They represent a romantic and stereotypical image of Japanese society that was already obsolete in the 19th century. In his photographs, Kusakabe Kimbei also takes up the Japanese bijinga, which are aesthetically stylised images of women. Here, too, the women are not depicted with the hairstyles and dresses of the time inspired by the West, but are dressed and styled according to traditional fashion.

„„Rickshaw trip“ (ca. 1890), Kusakabe Kimbei Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde e.V. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The photographs by Kusakabe Kimbei and his contemporaries have a lasting influence on the perception of Japan and Japanese culture abroad. The role of the medium itself should not be underestimated. Even more than the Japanese woodblock prints, which are also very popular in Europe, photographs create the impression of reality. Even if it is quickly recognisable with today's viewing habits that many of the scenes are set, the pictures still fit into romantic notions of Japanese culture.

„Samourai ceremony“ (ca. 1890), Kusakabe Kimbei Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde e.V. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

In 1889, George Eastman brings the Kodak Nr 1 on the market. The box camera is handy, easy to use and is now considered one of the first point-and-shoot cameras for amateur photographers. With the beginning of the new century, more and more travellers are turning to the camera themselves instead of purchasing elaborately produced and expensive souvenir photographs. The rising postcard industry as well as inexpensively produced picture books represent another competition for Japanese photo studios. Their photographs are now less valuable, but they continue to be complex and thus expensive to produce.

Many photo studios therefore have to close in the first decade of the 20th century. Kusakabe Kimbei restructures his business and offers amateur photographers both photo supplies for sale and his darkroom for rent. In addition to his business in Yokohama, he also opens a branch in Tokyo. He runs the photo studios until his retirement in 1914. Kusakabe Kimbei dies in 1932 at the age of almost 90. His lifetime coincides with numerous upheavals in Japanese society. He witnessed the opening up of Japan to the West, the abolition of the state system, the introduction of a constitution, but also the effects of Japanese imperialism and the strengthening of nationalist forces.

„Japan, dancers“ (1878-1883), attribution uncertain (Herman Andersen, Raimund von Stillfried)
Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

Clearly matching Japanese souvenir photographs from the late 19th century to their photographers is proving difficult today. On the one hand, travellers usually acquire different photos and stick them in their photo albums without reference to authorship. On the other hand, if a photo studio closes or a photographer retires, it is customary during this time to sell the negatives to the competition. First of all, there are no copyright regulations. Even after the introduction of copyright laws, the same photos are still sold by different photographers. Accordingly, it is often unclear today whether a photo was taken by Felice Beato, Raimund Stillfried von Rathenitz or Kusakabe Kimbei, for example.

Irrespective of the unclear authorship, the elaborately coloured photographs of Kusakabe Kimbei and other Japanese photographers such as Uchida Kuichi or Usui Shūzaburō still open up an idealised and enlightening view of Japan in the late 19th century.

Photographs by Kusakabe Kimbei at the Deutschen Digitalen Bibliothek (German Digital Library)

Photographs from Japan 1850-1900 in the Deutschen Digitalen Bibliothek



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