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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Book Review: Photography in Japan 1853 - 1912

日本の写真史 1853年 −1912年

Photography in Japan: 1853-1912, by Terry Bennett

Terry Bennett has created a work of art. In Photography in Japan, Bennett documents not just the Japanese and foreign photographers—who would today be considered either artists and/or workaday professionals—and their photos but also the seismic changes that took place in Japan from the opening of the country in the mid-nineteenth century to the early part of the 20th century.

Photography in JapanThere are 350 images that document Japan's evolution from feudal society to modern nation-state. The pictures range from the cinematic and panoramic to the everyday and homey. Images of fierce unsmiling samurai are terrifying—and a stark reminder of Japan's not so distant past as a warrior nation. In addition, there are several shots of murdered Westerners who, as a result of perceived slights—not showing enough deference at a chance meeting—against the aforementioned samurai were slaughtered on the spot.

Contrast these with the many shots of children and home interiors, geisha relaxing while not on duty and nudes. These show the softness for which Japan continues to be known.

Also of interest are Bennett's descriptions and biographies of the photographers themselves. What lives they lead! The serendipitous routes that brought them to Japan, which had just opened in mid-century, are themselves worthy of a book.

As a result of mid-nineteenth century Japanese politics, there are many, many shots of Nagasaki and Yokohama, two of the earliest and largest foreign settlements. Both were what can only be described as small fishing villages. For anyone who has been to Yokohama, in particular, in the last 30 years, these shots are from another universe. The bay in Nagasaki, at least, is still recognizable; the pictures of Yokohama, in contrast, are otherworldly in their antiquity and grace.

In the early sections, the cityscape in Yokohama is completely “Japanese” in appearance. Later in the 19th century, a jarring photo has rickshaw drivers resting or waiting for customers on a street. But for the men, it could be taken from Paris or London from the same period. The buildings and street have been completely made over and rebuilt in a single generation.

Plus ca change.

This is a wonderful book that can be looked at—and read—over and over again.

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