Admittedly, our mental images of old Japan are often romanticized. While our ideas are usually based on movies, television, or fantastic art works, it is almost impossible for us to reach back and see the past as it really was. However, this week in London, some of the only photographic images of Edo Period Japan in existence are going on display, offering a rare glimpse into that world. The photographs are the works of Felice Beato, who brought photography to Japan only a couple of decades after its invention.
Beato is one of the most important figures in the history of photography. His photos of the Crimean War, the 1857 Indian Rebellion and the Opium War are some of the earliest war photographs in existence, and his photographs from Asia and the Middle East brought images of another world back to Europeans and Americans who had never seen the other side of their planet. For over fifty years into the early twentieth century, Beato's photographs of Asia constituted the standard imagery of travel diaries, illustrated newspapers, and other published accounts, and thus helped shape "Western" notions of several Asian societies.
In 1863, Beato moved to Yokohama, where he quickly gained unprecedented access to the inner world of Japanese society. By traveling with diplomatic delegations or obtaining special access permits, he was even allowed to photograph samurai, and collected photos from Tokyo to Nagasaki. By 1868 Beato had readied two volumes of photographs, "Native Types", containing 100 portraits and genre works, and "Views of Japan", containing 98 landscapes and cityscapes. Many of the photographs in Beato's albums were hand-coloured, a technique that in his studio successfully applied the refined skills of Japanese watercolourists and woodblock printmakers to European photography.
Beato’s photography was notable, not just for its beauty, but for there respect he showed to his subjects. Beato not only brought images of Japan to the West, he also gave birth to photography in Japan. His students, such as Kusakabe Kimbei, became renowned and successful photographers on their own. He remained in Japan until 1884, when he traveled to Sudan, and then Burma and elsewhere throughout the world.
Here are some examples of his amazing photos:
If you would like to purchase or download some of his photos, you can go to the Getty Museum website:
The Daily Mail