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Baron Raimund von Stillfried: The photographer who invented Japan

by

Special To The Japan Times

To many in the West, Japan is an exotic country, seen through the distorting lens of tourist cliches: cherry blossoms, geisha, samurai, kamikaze. In that sense, little has changed since the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Japan was first promoted abroad as a sort of Oriental theme park.

Baron Raimund von Stillfried, a 19th-century pioneer of photography in Yokohama, was the first in Japan to recognize the new medium’s potential as a global marketing tool. Adept at producing theatrical souvenir photos, Stillfried also took the first ever photograph of Emperor Meiji and shocked Vienna when he imported Japanese teenage girls to the city to work in a mock teahouse.

A Career of Japan, by Luke Gartlan
384 pages
BRILL, Nonfiction.

“A Career of Japan” by Luke Gartlan, a lecturer in art history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is the first comprehensive study of Stillfried’s extraordinary life and works. Written for an academic readership using the language of critical theory, Gartlan’s account of a scandal-prone impresario resonates with contemporary parallels.

Baron Raimund Anton Alois Maria von Stillfried-Ratenicz was born in Austria in 1839 and spent his childhood in military outposts on the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1864, aged 24, he chose life as a cabin boy in a ship headed for Peru instead of an aristocratic military career.

By 1868, after a couple of years adventuring in Mexico, fighting a doomed campaign for the Habsburg Emperor, he had set up a photography studio in Yokohama. The rough and ready port town was hosting its first “globetrotters,” a word coined locally to describe the new wave of round-the-world tourists, propelled by the 1869 opening of the Trans-American railway and the Suez Canal.

One German globetrotter, Margaretha Weppner, recorded her impressions the same year:

“The foreigner in Japan leads an expensive, luxurious life. (The climate) requires that liquors should be taken before breakfast, wine, beer, and champagne at breakfast; the same routine before, at, and after dinner, and brandy and soda all day long.”

In Yokohama, tourism brought a new demand for “courios” and souvenir photos. Stillfried specialized in staged studio portraits featuring models decked out as traditional Japanese “types.” These striking hand-colored images were widely copied in Western newspapers and became emblematic of Japan.

In the same way that the foreign press today fixates on “weird Japan” stories, Stillfried’s images, Gartlan argues, were a popular fiction that exploited Western ignorance. Take, for example, “Two Officers” — used on the cover of “A Career of Japan” — that purports to show two samurai with their hair in topknots. The photograph was taken in 1875, four years after the traditional hairstyle worn by Japan’s warrior class was banned.

It was as a paparazzo that Stillfried first achieved notoriety. Hearing that Emperor Meiji was to visit Yokosuka on New Year’s Day in 1872 — the first public appearance by a Japanese monarch — Stillfried was determined to take his picture. According to contemporary accounts, he hid on a ship docked next to the Imperial landing area and secretly photographed the divine countenance through a hole in a sail.

Government officials reacted with fury when Stillfried brazenly advertised his scoop, ordering a police raid on his studio. Today, only one print survives. Stillfried was threatened with deportation, and the ensuing scandal reverberated around Asia. Shanghai’s North China Daily News said that the crack down was “the most foolish thing we have heard of the Japanese.”

Partly in order to trump Stillfried, the government commissioned an official portrait of the Emperor the same month. Kuichi Uchida’s image of “H.I.M. The Mikado” in Western dress was the state’s first foray into visual PR.

The Meiji regime may have disapproved of Stillfried, but they admired his talents as a propagandist, and hired him six months later to photograph the newly-colonized territory of Ezo (present-day Hokkaido). Stillfried’s photos of the Ainu people were displayed at the 1873 Vienna International Exhibition. Referring to a group Ainu portrait, the Japan Gazette of Jan. 23, 1873, said:

“The gift of beauty … has not been vouchsafed to the female descendants of Yesso (Ezo) … whose primitive ugliness of feature is artificially increased by moustachios [sic] tattooed along the upper lip.”

A separate image of two of the same figures was hand-colored by Stillfried. Gartlan notes that “the selective addition of colors emphasizes the women’s tattoos, a traditional practice soon to be banned by the Japanese government.”

Stillfried’s Hokkaido photos may have been displayed in the Japanese pavilion in Vienna but the man himself was barred from joining the official delegation to his home country, due to the lingering scandal over his photo of the Emperor. He reacted with typical bravado by erecting an imitation Japanese teahouse in the exhibition grounds, staffed by teenage Japanese girls imported from Yokohama.

The press reacted with thrilled prurience. “How innocent the term (teahouse) sounds to us, but what amount of shame it entails in Japan!,” the official exhibition journal reported, while the Chicago Daily Tribune referred to the “Yokohama Belles” as “by no means virgins.”

Gartlan argues that the teahouse was a respectable project, but the scandal was enough to close it down, leaving Stillfried almost bankrupt. One employee later alleged that the photographer beat his workers, evicted the girls at gunpoint and tried to have the teahouse burned down in order to claim insurance.

Returning to Yokohama in 1874, Stillfried’s career faltered amid growing competition from Japanese photographers whom he had personally trained, and who were happier to portray their country as a modern nation.

His final return to Viennese high society in 1883 coincided with the peak of the European craze for Japan-inspired art — culminating in “The Mikado” and “Madame Butterfly” — that his souvenir photographs had helped to create 15 years earlier. Stillfried’s heavily romanticized images had, in Gartlan’s words, a “vast impact on how the West perceived Japan at the time.”

His legacy can still be seen today. Western fantasies of Japan continue to draw on anachronistic assumptions about the country — from ornamental women to picturesque teahouses — and equally inaccurate images of a “futuristic” nation (one where fax machines have no place). Modern-day parallels can also be seen in the book’s depiction of Stillfried’s expat experiences: the battles with bureaucracy, the government propaganda, the conflicted approach to foreigners — and the drinking.