Kusakabe Kimbei: a Japanese Photographer to the West
Kusakabe Kimbei ((日下部金兵衛) was one of the most talented, respected, and commercially successful Japanese photographers of his generation. Born in 1841, only a decade before Japan would reopen its borders to the world and gain an influx of tourists from all around the globe, Kimbei was a pioneer of hand-painted souvenir photograph albums, known as Yokohama-shashin, depicting Japanese life, culture, and landscapes. Taking advantage of the ever-growing popularity of this kind of art, Kimebi sold these beautiful photographs of life in Japan’s Meiji period to Western tourists from his studio in the Benten-dōri quarter of Yokohama.
Japan was a mystery to the world for over two hundred years. The small country closed its borders in 1635 under the Sakoku policy (literally meaning “closed country”) enacted by Japan’s feudal military government - Tokugawa shogunate, known in Japan as the Edo shogunate – at the time. This policy was designed halt colonial influence on their way of life and so relations and trade were limited, almost all foreign nationals were prevented from entering Japan, and regular Japanese people were forbidden from leaving the country under penalty of death. As a result, Japan’s way of life was a complete mystery to the rest of the world.
That is until the 1850s.
After William II of the Netherlands unsuccessful tried to convince Japan to end their self-imposed isolation in 1844, The Perry Expedition, lead by Commodore Matthew Perry, was launched in 1853. It aimed to convince Japan to reopen its borders and engage with American trade. Known in Japan as Arrival of the Black Ships (黒船来航, kurofune raikō, the name they gave to Western ships arriving in the county), the threat of attack initiated a successful political dialogue and Japan began trading with the West as soon as five years later, after the Treaty of Amity and Commerce was declared.
Photography in Japan
Photography was still a relatively new invention by the time it arrived in Japan in the 1850s. Japanese and foreign artists were fascinated by the art’s ability to seemingly capture reality and it soon became incredibly popular. David Odo, an anthropologist and curator at Harvard Art Museums, notes that “photography played very well into this kind of desire to learn more about Japan”. Japan, once “forbidden” and “beyond reach” was “all of a sudden somehow knowable”.
The Japanese were keen to blend the style of their traditional woodblock prints - ukiyo-e, developed in 1765, depicted scenes from everyday Japan and remained popular through the Meiji period until its end in 1912 - with this modern invention.
What makes Japanese photography so uniquely beautiful is its use of watercolours. The lack of colour in photographs left people feeling as if the image was incomplete and so tinted dyes and colouring soon became part of the photography process. Unlike the coloured photographs produced in Europe and the US, which looked more like paintings, Japanese artists delicately painted their prints with watercolours which created a hyper-realistic aesthetic.
Western tourists adored these photographs and the money brought in by their purchases enabled Japan to mass produce photographic print on paper from a negative. This process was called the albumen print, also known as the albumen silver print, and it involved creating prints from the albumen found in egg whites which bound the photographic chemicals to paper.
The rise of Kusakabe Kimbei
Western tourists adored these photographs and paid a lot of money for them. By the 1860s there were dozens of photography studios in key trading ports aimed at visiting Western tourists, including Yohei Hori in Kyoto, Uchida Kuichi in Osaka, Kōkichi Kizu in Hakodate, and, of course, Kusakabe Kimbei’s studio in Yokohama.
Kimbei began his artistic career as an assistant and photographic colourist under European photographers Baron Raimund von Stillfried and Felice Beato; these artists were the first to “really take advantage of colour photography on a commercial scale”. One of their most beautiful photographs is Woman with Umbrella in Rain, which simulates rain by diagonal marks drawn on the negative and wind by suspending the woman’s kimono with wires and nailing it to the background.
After years of experience, Kimbei felt confident enough to open his own studio in 1881 and by 1892, with a collection of over 2000 prints, he had established himself as one of the most popular photographers in all of Japan.
Kimbei’s photographs often depicted Japanese landscapes, especially around Yokohama and Nakasendo, and studio portraits designed to celebrate Japanese culture. He was fascinated by the Samuari. Although the figure had gone out of fashion by the time photographer was popular, Kimbei loved staging elaborate portraits such as Three Samurais, and it gave Western audiences the impression that tradition was a key part of Japanese culture.
Kimbei was also a great admirer of Japanese women and so he made them a major focus of his work. According to Mio Wakita, curator of Asian Art at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, “more than half of the 416‘costume’ images” listed in Kimbei’s studio catalogue “featured women exclusively, whereas only about seventy images depicted men as the main subject”.
Applying what he had learned from his mentors von Stillfried and Beato, Kimbei highlighted Japan’s traditional feminine costumes and decorative hairstyles in photographs such as Girls Showing the Back Style, and often used real geishas as models because they were comfortable with being photographed. Kimbei’s photographs portrayed Japanese culture as one of femininity, “embodying beauty, delicacy, and submissiveness, in sharp contrast to the masculine vigor associated with late nineteenth-century America.”. Wakita notes that, like many of his contemporaries, Kimbei’s geisha photographs “demonstrate a close connection with the bijinga (pictures of beautiful women) tradition of ukiyo-e painting and wood-block prints”. Kimbei was keen to adhere to the root of his photographs, ukiyo-e, so unlike his contemporaries he refused to pose his subjects with interlocked hands because he viewed it as a Western pose that was “reminiscent of European sentimental romanticism”.
Kusakabe Kimbei may be better known today in the West than in Japan, but the enduring popularity of his photographs is a credit to his creativity and talent as an artist.