Ogawa Kazumasa, a Pioneer of Japanese Photography

Lily by Ogawa Kazumasa


Ogawa Kuzumasa was a Japanese photographer, publisher, and printer in the Meiji period and one of the innovators of photography and photomechanical printing in Japan. He opened the first photography studio in Tokyo in 1884 and created the first collotype photo printing business in 1889, but he is best known for his beautiful hand-colored photographs of flora, fauna, and Japanese landscapes. 

Ogawa Kazumasa

Ogawa Kazumasa

Historical Context


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 to 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 the death penalty. 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 unsuccessfully 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 persuade 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. 

Commodore Perry's Second Fleet

Commodore Matthew Perry's second fleet, ca 1853
sailing towards Japan to convince them to reopen their borders and engage with American trade.

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 became incresingly prevalent. 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 watercolors. The lack of color in photographs left people feeling as if the image was incomplete and so tinted dyes and coloring soon became part of the photography process. Unlike the colored photographs produced in Europe and the US, which looked more like paintings, Japanese artists delicately painted their prints with watercolors, creating 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.

Ogawa Kuzumasa


Ogawa was born in 1860 to the Matsudaira samurai clan of Saitama. His family had been samurai for generations, and his father was among the last of them. Ogawa showed an interest in photography from a young age, and by the time he was fifteen, he had started studying photography and English. In 1880 he moved to Tokyo to further improve his English skills, and soon after, he became an interpreter for the Yokohama Police Department. Dedicated to his artistic passions outside work, he studied photography with Shimooka Renjō, who widely credited as the father of Japanese photography and was the owner of the first photography studio in Yokohama. 

Kowairozukai by Shimooka Renjo 1870
Kowairozukai by Shimooka  Renjō 1870

Despite a potentially lucrative career in the police force, Ogawa decided that photography was his first love. Having secured employment as a sailor on the USS Swatara in 1882, Ogawa landed in Washington in the United States and moved between Boston and Philadelphia to study collotype printing, portrait photography, and the dry plate process. When he returned to Japan two years later, Ogawa opened the first photography studio in Tokyo, located in the Iidabashi (once Kōjimachi, until 1947) district. It was called the Gyokujunkan, and its primary export was portraiture. 


His studio was incredibly successful, enabling him to open his dry plate manufacturing company, Tsukiji Kampan Seizō Kaisha, in 1888, and Japan’s first collotype business, the Ogawa Shashin Seihan jo, also referred to as the K. Ogawa printing factory, the following year. Ogawa was also involved with Shashin Shinpō, a literary photography journal, as an editor and founded the publishing company Ogawa Kazumasa Photographic Copperplate Engraving Studio, which printed Essence of the Nation (Kokka 国華), Japan’s first mass-produced art periodical. Kokka was fixated on the beauty of flowers and plants, which perhaps accounts for their presence in a majority of Ogawa’s hand-colored works. Ogawa printed both publications using the collotype printing process. During this period, Ogawa also helped establish the Japan Photographic Society, which promoted the participation of professionals and amateurs alike. 


Ogawa’s work was sought after because unlike many of his contemporaries, including Kusakabe Kimbei, he focused more on how technology could be used to document reality rather than recreating Japanese mythology or older customs. His photographs of Buddhist sculptures in Nara and solar eclipses were especially popular, as well as two key volumes which he published with Hakubunkan. These were the collotype album A Photographic Album of the Japan-China War (Nisshin Sensō-zu), printed around 1894-1895, and the Russo-Japanese War Album (Nichiro seneki shashinjō), a chain of albums printed in halftone and collotype from 1904—1905.

Ogawa passed away in 1929. His photographs are appreciated and respected not only for their beauty but for their foundational place in Japanese photography history. Ogawa helped popularise photography, was a crucial component of photography’s journey in becoming a recognized art form in Japan and helped bring Japan’s unique artistic style to the Western world, which in turn influenced movements such as Art Nouveau.  


Click here to check out our entire collection of Ogawa Kazumasa art prints


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