The idea for the smart, complex and challenging exhibition “From Ukiyo-e to Photography” at the Edo-Tokyo Museum started from the discovery of two images. One is a photograph of the Meiji-Era (1867-1912) Minister of Home Affairs Toshimichi Okubo, taken in Paris in 1878. The second is a color ukiyo-e print of Okubo, made in 1878 by the woodblock artist Kiyochika Kobayashi, which is clearly based on the earlier photographic portrait.
From this relatively straightforward use of a photograph as source material, a year of research and preparation has gone into organizing a remarkably varied presentation of creative innovation and genre-bending. There are photo-realistic woodblock prints and paintings and, conversely, photographs that have been colored to look like handmade art. You can also see ukiyo-e of Japanese beauties holding photographs, and rather eerie souvenir portraits that feature the head of a Caucasian client, copied from a photograph and grafted onto a pre-painted kimono with Mount Fuji in the background. Welcome to “Ye Olde Photo Shoppe,” version 1880.