Photography in old Japan and the distortion of reality
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Kusakabe Kimbei was born in 1841 in Edo Japan and died in the 1930s during a period of heightened political tension. Hence, one can only imagine the things he witnessed because many convulsions hit Japan throughout his lifetime. Thus, despite Kimbei’s photographic reputation increasing long after his death, it is abundantly clear that a distortion persists in many images.
Of course, it is debatable about what the work of any photographer teaches us – or the meaning behind the photography. After all, when it comes to the media, for example, images can be part of mass propaganda or the agenda of the individual.
Alternatively, for many photographers, you may not have any agenda whatsoever – or the subject matter may just be based on landscapes or other natural themes. Likewise, for others, photography is all about making a living and surviving financially. Hence, Kimbei’s photography, irrespective of his passion, is based on the economic angle and how he made his living.
In some of the images highlighted in this article, the photos show aspects of everyday life. It all seems natural and “a matter of fact” but often people were hired to meet the demands of Western buyers. Thus, while the viewer can feel a glimmer of ordinary life in the land of the rising sun, it was often a mirage based on being highly staged.
It is known that his skill of being a photographic colorist appealed to Felice Beato and Baron Raimund von Stillfried. Indeed, knowledge and respect went in all directions because both individuals were photographers. Overall, Kimbei provides a window into old Japan even if a mirage and being distant from the real Japan that existed. After all, the focus for Kimbei was commercial and appeasing people who would buy his photography.
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