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By the time February rolled into March this year, curator Keishi Mitsui had been working on an exhibition of rare photographs for over two years. Nearly 200 prints, gathered through months of painstaking negotiations with museums and archives all over Japan, were finally in place in the third-floor gallery of the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum (ToP).

But just as the doors were ready to open, the threat of the novel coronavirus led the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to close museums and other cultural institutions. For 82 days, the halls of ToP stayed dark, the works went unseen. Before the museum could reopen, Mitsui had to take everything down to make way for the next exhibition.

Thankfully, second chances exist. Now Mitsui’s collection of early photography in Japan is back. Originally slated for a March-to-May run, “History of Early Japanese Photography: Kanto Region — Images of Japan, 1853-1912” is making an abbreviated reappearance through Jan. 24.

As the title suggests, this show — the first of a series that will focus on specific geographic areas — provides an overview of early photography in the Kanto region, which includes Tokyo and Yokohama. These two places figure prominently in the evolution of photography in Japan, and so the exhibition is an opportunity to highlight significant “firsts” in that history.

Going through the exhibition can be a moving experience if you pause to consider that a photograph from 150 years ago is more than the image on its surface; it’s a physical artifact that has survived two world wars, natural disasters, mishandling and natural deterioration. You can stand in the exhibition and look directly at the product of groundbreaking moments.

What kinds of milestones do these photos show? The first Japanese people to be photographed. The first photographs taken on Japanese soil. The first photograph of a Japanese emperor. Smaller achievements are also marked, such as works by the first photographers to work in Gunma and Chiba prefectures, as well as other inland locations on the Kanto Plain, where it took longer for new technologies to arrive.

Wrestle mania: One of the earliest photographs of sumo wrestlers, taken around 1868-71 by Shimooka Renjo | TOKYO PHOTOGRAPHIC ART MUSEUM
Wrestle mania: One of the earliest photographs of sumo wrestlers, taken around 1868-71 by Shimooka Renjo | TOKYO PHOTOGRAPHIC ART MUSEUM

The stories behind the images are compelling. The first photographs ever taken of Japanese people, for example, were taken not in Japan, but in the United States in 1851 or 1852. This was a time when Japan had a strict policy of national isolation and its citizens were forbidden, upon pain of death, from leaving the country. How, then, were these subjects photographed?

A year earlier, a small Japanese ship was sailing near the country’s coast when it lost its mast and was blown off course. After drifting at sea for a month and a half, the crew was finally rescued by the Auckland, an American whaling ship. They were taken to safety in San Francisco, where a photographer made daguerreotype portraits of each crew member. Two of these portraits, now in the collection of the Kawasaki City Museum, are included in this exhibition.

They almost weren’t, however, because the Kawasaki museum’s underground storage rooms were flooded in 2019 when the Tama River overflowed its banks. Much of the museum’s collection was destroyed, but the two portraits survived, thanks to quick action by the staff.

The first photographs taken on Japanese soil also have a story of loss and survival. Written records show that in 1854, Eliphalet Brown Jr., a member of Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition to open Japan’s ports, made several hundred daguerreotype photographs here. Some of these images were the basis for lithograph illustrations (as the technology to reproduce photographs on paper did not yet exist) included in the official record of the American expedition.

Unfortunately, almost all of Brown’s work was lost in a fire. The only originals known to have survived are five portraits that Brown presented to the photographed Japanese subjects as gifts. One is on view at ToP, although part of the image has been rubbed away, presumably because someone attempted to clean it.

Although it is a text-heavy exhibition, fortunately for visitors who do not understand Japanese, nearly everything is presented with English explanations. It is worth spending some time on the many panels that throw light on the complexity and demands of early photographic technology, especially if the only camera you have ever used is the one on your phone.

Work in progress: A photograph of Tokyo Station under construction, taken by Miyauchi Kotaro in 1911. In order to get a shot from this angle, it is presumed Kataro either found or erected scaffolding on which to set up his equipment.
Work in progress: A photograph of Tokyo Station under construction, taken by Miyauchi Kotaro in 1911. In order to get a shot from this angle, it is presumed Miyauchi either found or erected scaffolding on which to set up his equipment. | TOKYO PHOTOGRAPHIC ART MUSEUM

Take, for example, the first-ever photograph of Emperor Meiji, captured by Austrian photographer Raimund von Stillfried in 1871. In Stillfried’s photo, taken on the occasion of the ruler’s official inspection of a dry-dock facility in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, you can see evidence of retouching. The faces of several figures in the entourage, including the emperor, were added later with paint and brush. This is because the photographer had been unable to gain permission to photograph the event, and therefore hid himself and his equipment in a boat raised out of the water for repairs.

But the methods of the time required a long exposure, making it almost impossible to photograph someone unless they cooperated by holding still. Clearly, some members of the group moved, causing their faces to be blurred. The retouching on the emperor’s face looks nothing like his actual features, as can be seen by comparing it to an official portrait, which was hurriedly made a few months later after the uproar caused by the unauthorized photograph.

Consider, too, the series of 12 photographs, which Mitsui has arranged in order to present a 360-degree view of Tokyo as it appeared in 1889. According to newspaper accounts at the time, the photographs were taken from scaffolding in place for the construction of the Nikolai Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church that still stands in Chiyoda Ward. Maneuvering at that height was extremely dangerous: a carpenter working on the same scaffolding was killed when he lost his footing and fell to the ground. The series is even more remarkable when you consider that the photographer and his assistants had to carry up not only a camera and tripod, but also boxes of the heavy glass plates that went into the camera for each shot.

The exhibition is an opportunity to see what Japan’s capital looked like around the middle of the 19th century, when it was still called Edo, and how it changed and grew after it was renamed Tokyo in 1868. But for all the historical value of these photographs of the time, Mitsui hopes visitors will look at them as more than artifacts.

“We no longer need technical training simply to take photographs, but making photographs that are attractive still requires study,” he says. “Photographers in the 19th century created highly appealing images, which served as examples for all those who came after them.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that our ideas about what makes a good photograph are rooted in these early works, so it’s important to recognize their aesthetic value as well as their historic significance.”

“History of Early Japanese Photography: Kanto Region — Images of Japan, 1853-1912” runs through Jan. 24 at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum in Meguro Ward, Tokyo. For more information, visit topmuseum.jp/e/contents/exhibition/index-3454.html. The museum is offering an online guided tour in English that will stream live on the TOP Museum channel on YouTube from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Dec. 18. No sign-up necessary; just tune in.

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