The exhibition Souvenir from Japan presents a modern outlook on photography of the Meiji era (1865–1912), the period of the ‘opening of Japan’ and the modernization of foreign policy after two centuries of national isolation
Part of the exhibition is dedicated to the studio and plein-air works by professional Japanese photographers: Kusakabe Kimbei, Ueno Hikoma, Ogawa Kazumasa. These were the famous names in the history of photography of the last third of the nineteenth century. The exhibition also includes the works of prominent European authors that worked in Japan: Felice Beato, Adolfo Farsari, and Raymund von Shtillfrid-Rateniz, as well as their Japanese apprentices and colleagues.
Up to 1859 foreigners could not work in the Land of the Rising Sun. The foreign access to the country was greatly restricted by the Shogunate. Only in 1868, during the reign of Emperor Mutsuhito, European photographers managed to open their studios in some Japanese cities.
The mysterious Empire of the Sun that was so different from Europe in its culture and ways of life heated the imagination of the westerners. When it finally became open to foreigners (initially for sailors, merchants, diplomatic officials and missionaries), souvenirs from Japan became hugely popular. The Europeans bought woodprints, fans, umbrellas, netsuke, and of course photographs in abundance.
Photographic portraits of beautiful women (‘bijin-ga’), city and suburb characters, genre scenes and even landscape pictures – all these works of Japanese photographic art have much in common with traditional woodprints. As were the traditional woodblock prints, the albumin prints were hand-colored. Since the first panoramic photographs of Japan were made primarily by Italian, French and English photographers for the western customers, the composition of such images was strikingly deep compared to the shots made at the studios, which were rather planar. However, unlike the woodprints, these panoramic photographs were not overloaded with details.