Exhibition Unveils Meiji Photos

BERLIN -- Ongoing at Berlin’s Museum of Photography through January 10, 2016, “Pale Pink and Light Blue: Japanese Photography from the Meiji Period (1868-1912)” offers visitors a nuanced glimpse at the nascent but rapidly growing image-making industry in Japan that borrowed certain aesthetic cues from pioneering woodblock printers like Hiroshige and Hokusai, while looking forward to how photographic practice during this time was also influenced by Western art.

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network will appreciate the tight curatorial focus of this important exhibition.

The exhibition showcases some 250 photographs from the Meiji period, mostly drawn from Berlin’s state museums, by Nagasaki-based Ueno Hikoma and Uchida Kuichi, Yokohama-based Felice Beato, Baron Raymond von Stillfried-Rathenicz, Adolfo Farsai, and Kusakabe Kimbei, and Tokyo-based Ogawa Kazumasa.

Landscape photography from this period often took its compositional cues from canonical woodblock print works depicting “Views of Famous Places” by artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige.

The strategy of positioning motifs and objects in bold arrangements in the foreground of the picture that would frame and accentuate the scenery in the distance came from ukiyo-e, while photographers also deployed human figures seemingly lost in thought to give viewers a sense of perspective and identification.

The increasingly export-driven nature of photography in the Meiji period, similar to how ukiyo-e had captured the imagination of Western travelers during an early time, also had a profound impact on the choice of subjects.

Where geishas and courtesans were often the focus of the “Pictures of Beautiful Women” ukiyo-e by Utamaro or Kuniyoshi, these female protagonists continued to feature in the photographic compositions of the Meiji period.

More to the point, a large proportion of such photographic works only reinforced certain stereotypical or emblematic images of Japan that hearkened back to the idyllic, picturesque life of the Edo period.

The extensive collections of souvenir photographs in Berlin’s museums show that the compositions and themes of these images tended to remain unchanged throughout the Meiji period and right up until the mid 20th century: evidence of a certain self-exoticization by Japanese photographers who were often motivated by financial reasons to provide their foreign clients with rose-tinted images of a bygone Japan.

While only extremely wealthy Japanese would have been able to purchase an album by Kusakabe Kimbei or Ogawa Kazumasa, for instance, his foreign tourist clientele snapped up several works at a time without hesitation.

Indeed, one would have to practically squint to discern the traces of modern infrastructure that were sprouting up all over a rapidly developing and modernizing Japan. Meticulously framed frontal views of pagodas and palaces and untouched rows of low-slung houses along the harbor seemed eager to establish a visual continuity with the vistas depicted in the ukiyo-e of old — and anxious to expunge any sight of the sometimes unsightly infrastructure of modern trade and commerce, such as railway lines, street lamps, and telegraph poles, or the first harbingers of a high-rise urban skyline, such as the twelve-story Ryounkaku, Tokyo’s first skyscraper.

Photo above : Y. Isawa: Hiroshima, Miyajima. Itsukushima-Schrein, September 1896 oder früher. Albuminpapier, koloriert, 20,5 x 26,2 cm / 31,6 x 38,9 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek

Today's homepage Featured Art Video features many original photographs from the Meiji era. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GezeO3GS8vo&sns=em

“Pale Pink and Light Blue: Japanese Photography from the Meiji Period (1868-1912)” runs at the Museum of Photography, Berlin through January 10, 2016.