Portraiture and Early Studio Photography in China and Japan

Marco Musillo

Within the relatively new territory of research on Chinese and Japanese photography as languages uniquely Chinese or Japanese, Portraiture and Early Studio Photography in China and Japan by Luke Gartlan and Roberta Wue represents an important contribution. The two scholars are among those few who have been engaging with the history of photography with the aim of escaping from the obsolete history of Western cameras in China and Japan. In fact, today it remains the original sin of wrongly connecting the European origin of the photographic technology to the language of photography outside Europe, as if the local poetics have somehow to pay tribute to the first technological steps into this medium. Indeed, the two things should be separated, and the studio photography with its prefabricated stages, and standard procedures, represents the best example of such a cultural diversity, and important evidence of a significant resistance and freedom from colonial drives. This stance of course does not, and should not, negate the more or less problematic artistic dialogues between East Asia and the West. The volume is divided in three sections: ‘Studios and Photographers’, ‘Sitters and Domestic Markets’, and ‘Citizens and Subjects’; keeping in mind that some of its chapters were presented during the international conference Facing Asia, held in 2010 at the Australian National University in Canberra.

As a start, Luke Gartlan explores the work of the Japanese photographer Shimizu Tōkoku (1841-1907), whose milieu was Yokohama. Departing from a set of carte de visite produced around 1870, and in particular presenting the image of a woman dressed in a low-class style, Gartlan constructively confuses our view by playing with all the possible interpretative options about the identity of the sitter (model or paying customer), reasons of the commission (political, personal), and place of the shooting and kind of production (exotic pictures or a set catering to local clients) (p. 17). This open finale points to the complex artistic milieu exemplified by Tōkoku’s activities. He worked as painter and illustrator of both Japanese and Western-style pictures, and he also engaged with the photographic industry as evidenced by the carte’s series. All this proves that Yokohama’s industry was not distant from other more exclusive forms of photography: it was shaped by ‘interventions and shifts’ through the practices of photographers like Tōkoku, whose solid aesthetic repertoire, composed by local and foreign styles, was carefully conceived. With Roberta Wue’s study on Milton Miller (1830-1899), the complex interchange between local and foreign is enriched by the personal aesthetic choices of the photographer, who in this case is an American citizen. One of the earliest commercial photographers working in the Hong Kong-Guangzhou region, Miller’s language could hardly fit into ‘the usual categories of China photography’ (p. 41), especially in depicting the ‘racial other’. Although Miller could do so, in this early period, as conventions for photo portraits were not established yet, here we have an emblematic case study of an individual photographer and the cultural space in which the action unfolds. Miller did not create mise en scène for his sitters, but limited the backdrop to simple furnishings. Thus, the Chinese and non-Chinese subjects, whom embodied the great diversity of Southern China’s port cities, prominently display individual features; or in group portraits, corporate identities. Wue thus discloses an important fracture: portraying China through its inhabitants is not only about photos of Chinese people, but about pictures taken in a cultural space that at every step may change the photographer’s eye. We remain curios to know if Miller’s staging was influenced by the minimal props employed in the Cantonese opera or by traditional Chinese painting. However, what the pictures show is the photographer’s ‘sensitivity to different cultural mores and an awareness of the individual’ (p. 51); something that, as Wue points out, goes beyond Miller’s racist attitudes surfacing from biographical evidence (p. 47). Thus, even if projected from the photographer’s eye, both sitters and later audiences are free to look at Miller’s visual encounter without being bond to his cultural identity (p. 56). The contribution by Yi Gu, ‘Powkee and the Era of Large Studios’, reinforces the editors’ view that commercial studios should be seen as markers of important cultural and interpretative models. The focus is on the work of Ouyang Zhu (known as Ouyang Shizhi) and his Powkee Studio opened in Shanghai in 1889; in the territory of urban elites and their civic networks, profoundly permeated by new political discourses and innovative artistic views. Ouyang was in fact a student of Kang Youwei, the late Qing political reformer and intellectual: among his disciples were influential artists, such as Xu Beihong, who actively participated in shaping 20th-century Chinese art (p. 60). The Powkee Studio was not only producing portraits of its clients but also the portrait of the society to which they belonged: Gu greatly enlarges the boundaries of Chinese photography, stretching to religious practices, art display, discourses on ethnical identity, and technical novelties (for example the ‘method of printing on Chinese painting paper’ (p. 65)). Thus, it is not a coincidence that in 1922, Powkee started advertising its production as art (meishu) following the employment of the emerging concepts of ‘art photography’  (yishu sheying or meishu sheying) (p. 68).

Sebastian Dobson opens the second section with a study on the photographer Matsuzaki Shinji’s, enriched by the appendix with the first full translation of his 33-pages pamphlet Essential of Photography – Do’s and Don'ts for the Photographic Customer (Shashin hitsuyō – Shakyaku no kokoroe). The practice of photography embodied by Matsuzaki – also a war-photographer – was informed by marketing, journalism, and new political languages, and by a new public visibility giving photographers a new social and artistic status (pp. 82-3). Particularly interesting from Matsuzaki’s guidelines are the directions on how to dress in the Western style (yōfuku), which also reveal regional differences and issues of gender (pp. 85-6). Finally, Matsuzaki’s guide shows the dialogue between photography and other arts, also in terms of materials and techniques, which represents the way to address a new history of global photography. For example, in one section of the guide the author addresses the influence of the traditional wood-block printing with regards to popular portraiture, a topic deserving further studies (p. 90). And it is with portraiture that Claire Roberts, in ‘Chinese Ideas of Likeness’, explores the links between photography and painting in order to investigate transcultural representations of the look and presence of a person in two dimensions. The focus is on the cultural context in which pictures take form, and on ‘fashion, taste, and cultural mores’ that originate from the dialogue between painting and photography (p. 97). Within this dialogue, exemplified by Ren Xiong’s self-portrait, the poetics of verisimilitude linked to ideas of realism represents indeed a crucial subject. A context also emblematized by the painter Lam Qua (Guan Qiaochang) who for example used a daguerreotype taken by the French Jules Itier for portraying Qiying (p. 101). Other exemplary cases, from commercial painting studios, show the ways in which a person’s image is photographically constructed with in mind Chinese painting techniques and aesthetics. The portrait of He Zhanli, Kang Youwei’s third wife, painted in 1916 by Xu Beihong (109-110), proves further that intermediality should be considered as a foundational element of Chinese photography. Roberts’ contribution is followed by Richard Kent’s study on inscribed photographic portraits in Republican China (p. 117). The author considers portraits that did not have a public identity, nor historical significance, which display poetic forms that embody ideas of modernity; for example when the sitter is portrayed driving a car, usually a cut-out of an automobile juxtaposed to a painted background (figure 7.1, p. 119). However, the focus here is on the fascinating and irresolvable relation between portrait and text: in place of the knowledge of the social meanings given to the sitter’s identity, it is the realization of the impossibility to convey the spirit of a person through words and images together. Indeed, one of the most important topoi of Chinese art (pp. 122-3). Kent shows that ‘force of a cultural past’ generating solid mutations that we need to study in all its chronological and poetic singularities: memory, identity, poetry, and painting. Singularities that are present in ‘One, and the Same’ by Tiffany Lee: an exploration of the aesthetic roots giving poetic resonance to Chinese photography. This is the genre erwo tu – a term mentioned by Lu Xun in his essay On Photography (Lun zhaoxiang zhi lei, 1924) – in which the sitter is multiplied in the same image through multiple exposures on the same negative or by combination printing by the photographer (p. 140). Here the painting inheritance is less straightforward, and to understand these pictures one should look at literature, and in particular Buddhist themes. In fact, name for such imaginative photographic experimentations turned to terms like huashenfenshen, and shenwaishen, all referring to emanations or duplications of the Buddha’s body; but also to the popular figure of the Monkey King (from the 16th-century fiction Journey to the West (Xiyouji)) and his ability to reproduce himself through his body hair (p. 142). As furtherly proven by the popular theme of Qiuji tu (picture of me entreating myself), here it is the poetics of sameness that triggered the interest of the sitters. Qiuji tu portraits are in fact presented within the scenographic image of me-begging-myself: a vision proposing the image of a plural existence rather than picturing a different self (p. 147); almost contradicting the technical variety of such a photographic theme.

In the final section, Maki Fukuoka’s study on the photographic studios located in the neighborhood of Asakusa (Tokyo) and Kabuki, looks at photography in relation to other visual arts during the Meiji period (1868-1912). This study challenges the ‘tacit acceptance’ of Western standpoints like Thomas Rimer, who defined the fluidity that characterized art practitioners of the period as ‘schizophrenic division in the arts’ (p. 160). Far from being ‘schizophrenic’, the production in Asakusa should be seen as part of an artistic microcosm in motion, in which the divisions between different media forms – theatre, printed matters, etc – could be crossed. The visual logic beyond such movements and interactions, what the author calls ‘dissonant seeing’ (p. 162) is fully visible in the images analyzed here, for example the portraits of kabuki actors by Uchida Kuichi. In connecting the visible with the non-visible of the theatrical world, the author well demonstrates how the producers of Asakusa were influenced by shifting cultural changes and dissonances, embodying in this way an emblematic beginning of Japanese photography. Karen Fraser furtherly enlarges our knowledge on Meiji-period photography with a study on women’s portraiture. Beginning with photos of young women (bijin, ‘beauties’), the author discusses the important shift from private to public consumption. This framework also hints at new social tensions around the ‘invisibility’ of ordinary women on printed matters, and the visibility of geisha and courtesans thanks to their ‘sexual availability’ (p. 176). If between the two centuries, it was not accepted for ordinary women’s portraits to be displayed publicly, the notoriety of women who were not recognized by men as ‘erotic commodities’, together with the sudden visibility of ordinary women, represented a great threat for the male order. The publication of pictures of female writers on the Literary Club (Bungei kurabu) in 1895, is emblematic of how photography not only represented a space for women to be represented outside the male gaze, but more importantly, of an indirect means to understand the rules of the male monopoly on the making and contextualization of the women’s image. The photos of the writers in fact triggered the criticism of male readers who saw similarities with the portraits of geisha (pp. 176-7). Soon, this tension would be diluted within a framework where political discourses and social ideologies are characterized by entertainment, as demonstrated by the photo-illustrated periodicals, and by events such as the national beauty contest that unfolded on the pages of the Current Events (Jiji shinpō) between 1907 and 1908. The women who submitted their portraits to this journal, like their readers and viewers, came from various classes and backgrounds (p. 183). Photography in this case is evidence of a new commercialization of the woman’s image, grounded in ideas of beauty linked to political agendas and issues of national identity. The last contribution by Joan Judge, on women’s portraits in early 20th-century China, also explores issues of visibility–invisibility. We find tensions – similar to the Japanese framework – between upright women (mingyuan) and courtesans (mingji) taking shape on the surface of photographs. The author makes a very useful comparison between two collections: 125 pictures of ‘republican ladies’, who appeared on Women’s Eastern Times (Funü shibao) between 1911 and 1917; and 1,500 photographs of courtesans from three albums of ‘beauties’ published between 1910 and 1914. Analyzing both how these subjects were portrayed and the contexts of the narratives and audiences involved, the author highlights the material circumstances (for example the use of collotype) under which these pictures were produced and circulated, linking them to new social practices of Republican China. Judge unveils a territory in which photography witnessed a novel social engagement with the image of women, and modern forms of voyeurism.

This well-conceived journey along studio photography in China and Japan presents an attentive analysis of forms of self-representation and formation of modern identities, shedding light on the incorporation of photography into local visual practices and artistic traditions. While contributing to a global history of photography in Asia, the authors successfully engage with local practices and histories of assimilation, consumption, and description, proving that social history, anthropology, or literature can no longer be excluded. In other words, if we want to study the history of Asian photography, we have to face the cultural systems in which this practice is rooted.