“Photography in Japan 1853-1912” Book Review

If you become a fan of anime, you inevitably become interested in Japanese culture. From there, you become ingrained in the historical aspects of Japan, with such a unique lifestyle and look that it is hard not to become immersed in wanting to learn more. There are plenty of history books out there, but one that I found highly fascinating is one that is filled with photos and not words, “Photography in Japan 1853-1912”.

Released by Tuttle Publishing, “Photography in Japan 1853-1912” is a tremendous photo-book that stands nearly a foot tall with 320 pages of history and tradition captured in one tome. The book covers the end of the Edo period through to the end of the Meiji period, a shifting time in Japanese culture and how they dealt with outside nations. Meticulously researched by Terry Bennett, much of the efforts in the creation of this book was discovering and crediting the photographers of the pieces in this book. Discovering the origins behind each images adds new depth to understanding the purpose of the photos and adds more insight into the content of them.

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As the book explains, photography did not become a more well-spread thing in Japan until the late 1850’s, and most of the shooters were foreigners who were now able to travel into and out of the country due to Japan opening their borders to allow this. Shimazu Nariakira has been attributed to the first photo taken in Japan by a Japanese photographer, and one of the first national photographers was Ukai Gyokusen, who learned the trade from an American based in the port-city of Yokohama. The world of professional photography expanded from there with more Japanese picking up the trade and thus growing into a part of their everyday culture.

The book goes into great details examining the photographers just as much as the photos, since this information tells the story of a nation changing into a modern society. The techniques of shooting and developing images are a fascinating story to begin with using these old-timey cameras, but the stories of the people behind them are equally interesting. When I initially heard of this book, I expected to have pages of photos with little to no context, and was very excited to be able to learn a much deeper tale that is almost like a narrative taking us on a trip over two periods in Japan’s old days.

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The images themselves are amazing and often unexpected. Shots of men in Samurai armor, landscapes of traditional architecture, and portraits of Japanese nobles are among the normal photos you expect, but you do not expect to find images of decapitated heads, everyday lives of the common people, and the ravages of natural disasters. These are images often bypassed by your average history book, so seeing them here was a welcome shock. This is uncensored Japan with stories told in pictures, seen from the people on top and those living on the bottom as well. It makes this book invaluable to readers of Japanese history, not necessarily offering a different view of things but telling different tales through what you could consider early photo-journalism of human interest stories.

You can order “Photography in Japan 1853-1912” on Amazon.com as a hardcover for around $46, or as a soft-cover for a little over $30. Serious photographers and history lovers will love reading this book, as will aficionados of Japanese culture. This is a flashback to the past with gorgeous images and the stories behind them, I highly recommend this to anyone that loves a good photo book. I learned a ton about the people behind the photos and got a taste of a new kind of history that I was not expecting to read about. It is a wonderful book for history buffs, photo fans, and anyone interested in Japanese culture, and makes for a great coffee table book as well, so this really covers all your bases for whatever your reading needs may be.

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