Geisha, Samurai, and the Tokaido Road
Vintage Photographs of Japan
A new exhibition at the Museum of Art features stunning original photographs of 1860s and ’70s Japan, an unsettled period when that nation was shifting from an isolated society under shogunates to an open one.
Curated by UNH Professor of Art History Eleanor M. Hight, the exhibition includes nearly 100 albumen photographs by the Italian-born Felice Beato (1832–1909), one of the most successful early photographers in Japan.
Over the past decade, Hight has presented and published scholarship on photography from Japan and Germany as well as on the photographic record of colonized nations. Her work brought her in contact with Tom Burnett, New York City, an avid collector of nineteenth-century photographs from whose extensive personal collection the Beato photographs are drawn.
A naturalized British citizen, Felice Beato was a professional travel and war photographer before arriving in Yokohama, Japan, a treaty port, in 1863. Beato faced travel restrictions, limited photographic supplies, a nonexistent market for photography, and even attacks by rogue samurai. Nevertheless, he established the model for commercial photography in Japan in terms of subjects, style, and marketing to a Western audience.
For his clientele, Beato provided a glimpse into a foreign culture—both real and imagined. His subjects range from geisha and samurai to landscape views and historic sites.
Beato’s great success can be attributed to several factors: the sheer volume of the catalog he established, his good fortune in having opportunities to travel to locations within Japan that most foreigners could not visit, his technical skills with cumbersome photographic equipment, his adoption of the travel photo album concept (his sumptuous albums were desirable souvenirs), and his use of hand-coloring and vignetting techniques. Above all, Beato gave tourists and foreign customers a vision of Japan that fascinated and informed them, yet catered to comforting stereotypes. It was a winning combination.
The exhibition, free and open to the public, continues through December 12. An accompanying catalogue written by Eleanor M. Hight reproduces dozens of photographs from the exhibit and provides context for and analysis of Beato’s work. Visit the Museum of Art online for hours and additional information.
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