Portraits in Sepia

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Book review of Portraits in Sepia about vintage Japanese photographers and images.

by Philbert Ono

Portraits in Sepia セピア色の肖像―幕末明治名刺判写真コレクション

Reviewed on: Nov. 20, 2000 Last modified: 2005-04-03

Extensive compilation of biographies (in both Japanese and English) of photographers in Japan during the late Tokugawa Period and Meiji Period (mid 19th century to 1912) plus 200 vintage Japanese photos. Autographed copies (signed by the authors) available from Sakura-do.

幕末期から明治時代の間に国内で活躍した550人の日本人と外国人写真師のデータ集と作例。古写真に興味がある人とそのコレクターに必須の本。PhotoGuide Japanがこの本の一つの英文参考文献になってます。私の友人でもある二人の著者、井桜直美さんとトーリン・ボイド氏の永年の研究の成果でもある。しかし、まだまだ未完成だと二人が言う。日本カメラ博物館が監修。

Authors: Torin Boyd and Naomi Izakura Published: Oct. 10, 2000 Publisher: Asahi Sonorama ISBN: 4257035986 Price in Japan: ¥4,725 Qualities: Hard cover, sepia photos Size: A4, 328 pp. Language: Japanese and English

The authors of this book have been close collaborators in the field of vintage Japanese photography ever since the early 1990s. Together, they have built up a major collection of vintage Japanese photos consisting mainly of carte de visite (business card-size photos) and cabinet-size photos. This Boyd-Izakura Collection of Tokyo represents over 550 Japanese photography studios and publishers from the Bakumatsu (1850s to 1868) and Meiji Periods (1868-1912). It served as one of the book's two main reference sources. The other main source was a book titled Nihon Shashin-kai no Bukko Korosha Kenshoruku, written by UMEMOTO Sadao and KOBAYASHI Shujiro and published in 1952. This valuable reference has about 1,000 entries from the 1850s to 1952.

The first part of the book shows over 200 sepia-tone carte de visite photos from Boyd-Izakura collection of over 2,000 carte de visite. As the book's title indicates, the pictures are almost all portraits. They are categorized according to the photographer, such as SHIMOOKA Renjo, Felix Beato, Baron Raimund von Stillfried, UENO Hikoma, UCHIDA Kuichi, USUI Shuzaburo, KUSAKABE Kimbei, and Adolfo Farsari. There is a wide variety of portraits. Besides the usual rickshaw pullers, samurai, geisha, nudes, and foreigners dressed in Japanese garb, there are unusual gems as well. There's a dog (named Cheesai) standing on its hind legs on a small round table. (It's amazing that it stayed that way long enough for the slow shutter speed.) There's a midget man posed with Ainu aborigines, three children (related) all smiling for the camera in 1907, a cute little girl smiling with her blonde-haired doll in 1908, and nine ladies in fluorescent white gowns sitting in a park and looking like angels from heaven.

The last few pages of the pictorial section show the different identification stamps and trademark insignia imprinted on the back of the photograph by various photographers and photo studios. The designs are quite fancy and even highly artistic.

After the pictorial, the bulk of the book is devoted to an exhaustive (but still incomplete as the authors warn) list of photographers (foreign and Japanese), photo studios, photo publishers, and retailers of photos and photo materials from the late 1840s to 1912 or so. It includes Japanese photographers who worked outside Japan and non-Japanese outside Japan who photographed or published images of Japanese. The list is in both Japanese (compiled by Izakura) and English (compiled by Boyd). For the most part, both lists correspond to each other, but there are some entries or information found in one list but not in the other. The English is also not a word-for-word translation of the Japanese. Izakura and Boyd did collaborate with each other, but they also worked independently to a certain degree. Also, if you can read both Japanese and English, note that the English list's alphabetical order does not correspond to the Japanese list's phonetic hiragana (a, i, u, e, o, etc.) order. Therefore, you will not find the Japanese equivalent in the same place as in the English list and vice versa.

There are over 1,150 entries in each list. The authors state that the lists only reflect what is currently known. Each entry tries to provide the following information where known: Year of birth, occupational status (commercial, amateur, retail, publisher, etc.), studio/company name, known address(es), and a brief biography. The vast majority of the entries are very short or abbreviated. (The "address" can just be "Tokyo.") They attest to how little biographical information is available or known. The biographical information is much more complete and detailed for well-known photographers like KUSAKABE Kimbei, OGAWA Kazumasa, SHIMOOKA Renjo, SUGIURA Rokuemon (founder of Konica), TAMAMURA Kozaburo, UCHIDA Kuichi, UENO Hikoma, USUI Shuzaburo, YOKOYAMA Matsusaburo, Felix Beato, and Baron Raimund von Stillfried. Both the Japanese and English lists put the Japanese persons and foreign persons into separate sections. At the end of the English and Japanese lists, there is a detailed explanation of the history of the Japanese carte de visite which can help the collector date a carte de visite. There is also a list of basic photographic terms such as albumen, ambrotype, collotype, and lantern slide.

The last section of the book is a geographical index listing all the entries in the preceding two lists according to prefecture. If you live in Japan, you can quickly see whcih photographers, photo studios, etc., were active in your prefecture. Tokyo has an overwhelming number, followed by Kanagawa.

At the very end of the book is a fold-out color leaflet in Japanese explaining photographic terms on one side and different vintage photo papers on the other side. Illustrations are provided on both sides. The side explaining the photo papers show enlargements of a part (the subject's eye) of each portrait printed on a different photo paper. The closeups show the differences in grain, contrast, and overall tone.

This is a beautiful book made with high-quality paper. If you are a collector or dealer of vintage Japanese photographs, this is a must-have book. It can help you identify the photographer of your photographs or help you learn more about a photographer. Photo historians will also find it a very useful reference. The authors do not claim the book to be a "definitive statement" on the field of vintage Japanese photography. They know that it is a constantly evolving field where new information and discoveries are always made. However, as of this year, this book is currently the most up-to-date and detailed work so far.

This book was sponsored and supervised by the Japan Camera and Optical Instruments Inspection and Testing Institute (JCII) in Tokyo. The JCII also operates the Japan Camera Museum and JCII Photo Salon in Tokyo, and it is a major organization in Japan's photography establishment. The JCII has a great interest in vintage cameras, photographs, and postcards.

Both authors are personal friends of mine and I was happy to see my name and "PhotoGuide Japan" (including the URL) listed in the book's English bibliography. Besides collecting vintage photos, Naomi is also a dealer (named Sakurado) who sells and rents photographs in her collection. She worked on the book almost full time for three years. The book royalties she will receive will not even begin to cover the time and costs that she incurred. The more research she did, the more people she discovered that should be included in the book. It was a never-ending project that had to stop somewhere so that the book could be published. I congratulate them on a job very well done. (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)

Note: This book is available from Sakura-do, autographed by co-authors Naomi Izakura and Torin Boyd.