Books

Old photos illuminate a Japan now 'lost'

by Martin Laflamme

Contributing Writer

Photography arrived in Japan early. The equipment to produce daguerreotypes — images etched on copper plates coated with silver — was introduced via the Dutch trading port of Dejima in the late 1840s, a decade after its invention in France.

Lost Japan, by Rossella Menegazzo.
160 pages
ELECTA, Photography.

In these pre-modern times, however, technology spread comparatively slowly and it was only after Japanese ports were opened to foreign trade and settlement, particularly those of Yokohama and Nagasaki in 1859, that photography took off.

One of the most important actors in this process was Felice Beato. A Venetian by birth and British by citizenship, Beato landed in Japan in 1863. Though he was only 31, he was already a seasoned photographer: He had documented the carnage of the Crimean War in 1856, recorded the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and, three years later, captured images of British and French forces as they fought their way to Beijing at the end of the Second Opium War (1856-1860). But it was in Japan, where he spent more than 20 years, that Beato would become one of the preeminent photographers of his time.

His timing was fortuitous. For one thing, he had the opportunity to learn photography — at that time a highly technical skill accessible to only a few — with the help of a relative who also provided access to expensive equipment. Equally important, this happened at a time when Western influence was expanding rapidly across the world, and demand for images of the exotic new lands colonial empires encountered, and conquered, was booming.

On top of that, Beato had talent galore. As Rossella Menegazzo, associate professor of history of East Asian art at the University of Milan, writes in “Lost Japan,” the “quantity and variety of his pictures, the quality of the focus, the contrast of shadow and light … were unparalleled and still bear witness to his professional skills.” Leafing through her lavishly produced volume, a stunning collection of images by Beato, his disciple Kusakabe Kimbei and some of their contemporaries, most of which are being published for the first time, one is hard-pressed to disagree.

In Japan, Beato had to adapt to a new environment. Until then, he had often worked outdoors, on battlefields or around well-known historic sites. But in the twilight years of the shogunate, before the Meiji Restoration of 1868, foreigners faced significant travel restrictions — Kyoto, for instance, was off-limits. Thus, Beato focused on work in the studio, where he staged “typical” scenes of Japanese life — “Sumo wrestlers” and “Two women holding a pipe” are representative examples.

He recruited Japanese colorists to enliven his photographs, which themselves began to exhibit the influence of Japanese art, most obviously in their composition. Despite a certain theatricality, which is typical of the period, the results are often remarkable. “No other country has such a beautiful and refined tradition of hand-colored photographs,” says Menegazzo.

An affable and gregarious man, Beato cultivated a broad network of contacts among the British and foreign officer corps, as well as in business and diplomatic circles. These individuals facilitated access to remote and restricted regions of the country, but also formed his main customer base.

By 1872, Beato was running a large studio with two assistants and eight Japanese staff — four photographers and four colorists. Still, his finances remained precarious, even as the Japonism craze was reaching fever pitch in the Western world. Beato was a poor investor who made risky bets in land speculation and lost repeatedly in the stock market. By the time he left Japan in 1884, he was broke.

His outgoing personality notwithstanding, much of Beato’s life remains unexplained. We know little about his childhood or his whereabouts later in life, particularly the period he spent in Myanmar in the 1890s. He died in Florence in 1909, to general indifference, and for more than a century, even the location of his tomb was unknown — it was found by chance by a municipal employee in 2012.

“Lost Japan” is a fitting tribute to his art.