Voiceover: Felice Beato in Japan

Fe­bruary 19 to June 12, 2022

In a pre­sen­ta­tion in the pho­tog­ra­phy room, the Mu­se­um Lud­wig is show­ing hand-col­ored pho­to­graphs by the Italian-Bri­tish pho­to­g­ra­pher Fe­lice Bea­to. His West­ern, ex­oti­ciz­ing view of a by­gone Ja­pan, which he re­cre­at­ed in his stu­dio, will be sup­ple­ment­ed in the pre­sen­ta­tion with spo­ken com­men­tary by Ja­pa­nese peo­ple.

In 1863, the Italian-Bri­tish pho­to­g­ra­pher Fe­lice Bea­to (*1832, Venice; †1909, Flo­rence) trav­eled to Ja­pan, which had on­ly re­cent­ly start­ed open­ing up to the West and was un­der­go­ing a great so­cial up­hea­val from the feu­dal sys­tem of the Edo pe­ri­od (1603–1868) to the im­pe­rial Mei­ji era (1868–1912). De­spite this, Bea­to ran a pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio in the port ci­ty of Yoko­ha­ma un­til 1884, where he ex­clu­sive­ly sold pic­tures of the old Ja­pa­nese ways. His genre pic­tures and land­s­capes were print­ed in large num­bers and scat­tered across the globe. Be­fore pho­tog­ra­phy be­came easi­er thanks to small-for­mat cam­eras and roll film in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, merchants, mis­sio­naries, di­plo­mats, mil­i­tary of­fi­cers, and trav­el­ers to Ja­pan bought Bea­to’s pho­to­graphs. The hand-col­ored al­bu­men prints mount­ed on card­board could be purchased in­di­vi­d­u­al­ly or, on re­quest, bound in­to al­bums with ex­pla­na­to­ry texts at the stu­dio. While Bea­to’s ear­ly pho­to­graphs of Ja­pan were col­ored by his part­n­er Char­les Wirg­man, this was in­creas­ing­ly done by his Ja­pa­nese stu­dio em­ploy­ees, who were trained in the art of col­ored wood­cuts or cal­lig­ra­phy. In 1872 Bea­to em­ployed two as­sis­tants, four pho­to­g­ra­phers, and four col­orists. De­spite this com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion, each pho­to­graph is thus unique. And sou­venir pho­tog­ra­phy in Yoko­ha­ma—al­so known as Yoko­ha­ma shashin (Yoko­ha­ma pho­tog­ra­phy or Yoko­ha­ma School)—be­came fa­mous for th­ese col­or­ings.

Bea­to’s pic­tures con­vey a West­ern, ex­oti­ciz­ing view of a sup­pos­ed­ly time­less coun­try, which cont­in­ues to shape peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of the is­land na­tion to this day. We see peo­ple en­gaged in dif­fer­ent ac­tiv­i­ties in the care­ful­ly ar­ranged sett­ing of a pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio, and oc­ca­sio­n­al­ly out­side. The fact that we are not cer­tain of the names of the peo­ple in the pho­to­graphs is al­so due to the cir­cum­s­tance that Bea­to usu­al­ly hired mod­els who were then out­fitt­ed with cul­tu­r­al­ly tra­di­tio­n­al props to por­tray dancers or mu­si­cians, for ex­am­ple.

Th­ese are jux­ta­posed with wood­cuts by nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Ja­pa­nese artists that show West­ern and ear­ly Ja­pa­nese pho­to­g­ra­phers in some­times hu­mor­ous scenes. Pre-re­cord­ed spo­ken com­men­tary by Ja­pa­nese peo­ple to­day, who to­gether ex­amine and ques­tion Bea­to’s pho­to­graphs, is pre­sent­ed as a voiceover.

All the pho­to­graphs and lac­quered al­bums on view come from the col­lec­tion of pho­to­jour­nal­ist Robert Le­beck, who trav­eled to Ja­pan for the first time in 1961 for the re­port “Ja­pan – I see!” in the mag­azine Kris­tall in or­der to pho­to­graph the first nu­clear pow­er plant there, among other things. His col­lec­tion of pho­to­graphs was giv­en to the Mu­se­um Lud­wig in 1993.

Cu­ra­tors: Miri­am Szwast and Meike Deil­mann