Shimooka Renjo, back in focus

by Alice Gordenker

Special To The Japan Times

It’s not surprising that the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography has organized a retrospective on Shimooka Renjo, one of the very first commercial photographers in Japan. What is surprising is that it didn’t happen sooner: The exhibition, at the museum through May 6 with a change of exhibits on April 7, is the first-ever large-scale retrospective on this pioneer of Japanese photography.

Shimooka Renjo (1823-1914) opened a photographic studio in Yokohama in 1862, having struggled for years to teach himself photography at a time when it was almost impossible to get information about this foreign technology. He played an important role in disseminating photography in Japan by teaching others, many of whom went on to open commercial studios. He was also honored by the Tokyo government before his death for his many contributions to the field.

So why hasn’t there been a major retrospective of his work before? Two reasons, according to curator Keishi Mitsui. First, after Renjo died, doubts were raised about the veracity of a written account of his life, to the point that some scholars labeled him “Horafuki Renjo” (“Renjo the Braggard”). Recent research, however, has established that his account is largely true, and is in fact an important historical record. Second, there weren’t many known examples of his work until discoveries in the last few years greatly increased the number of photographs that could be positively attributed. These advances made it possible to launch a large-scale exhibition.

“A Retrospective on Shimooka Renjo: 100 Years After His Death” brings together 280 of Renjo’s works, including some 150 carte-de-visite (small-sized) photographs from the museum’s collection, portraits and seldom seen examples of his landscape photography. Of special note is a rare album, on loan from a New York collector, which has never been exhibited in Japan before. The album contains a dated inscription by the original owner, a foreigner in Yokohama, which makes it possible to more accurately date Renjo’s hand-colored photographs.

Renjo catered to a largely foreign clientele in Yokohama, and it is likely that photographs of his are as yet unidentified in collections outside of Japan. In an effort to bring such works to light, the museum decided to provide full English translation in the exhibition catalog, which is published as a book: “Shimooka Renjo: A Pioneer of Japanese Photography,” (Kokushokankokai, 2014).

One of the surprises about the exhibition is that about half of the display space is given over to paintings. This is because Renjo was a painter before he was a photographer, and quite an accomplished one, even earning a professional painter’s name in the famous Kano School. After Renjo’s wife died in 1875, he largely gave up photography and returned to brush and paper. Some of the paintings he produced in his last years are stamped with a seal that reads “Shashin Ganso” (“The Original Photographer”), proof that to the end of his life he remained proud of having once been a pioneer in photography.

As a special service for this exhibition, Alice Gordenker will conduct English guided tours of the gallery on April 6 from 2 p.m., and on May 1 from 6 p.m. The tour is free with regular admission. “A Retrospective on Shimooka Renjo: 100 Years After His Death” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography runs till May 6; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu., Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥700. Closed Mon. (except April 28 and May 5).