Adolfo Farsari (1841-1898), an Italian adventurer who ended up fighting for the North during the American Civil War, settled in the port city of Yokohama in the 1870’s and taught himself photography. By the early 1880’s, the Western dominance of the Yokohama tourist photography industry had waned, but Farsari would still become a commercial success. In 1885, he acquired the negative and stocks of the famed Stillfried and Anderson firm and opened up his own professional photography studio, named A. Farsari & Co., on the main street in the bustling port. Like his competitors, he sold photographs and pre-made albums to wealthy “globetrotters” who sought to return home with photographs of famous sites. Photography no longer needed the technical skill it once required, mostly because of the transition to the easier dry-plate process, and consequently the photograph started to transition from a fine piece of art to a commodified object.[1] Farsari’s early successes were almost robbed of him completely, as a devasting fire ravaged Yokohama just a year after he opened his business, subsequently destroying his studio and collection of negatives. Unfortunately, not only were all of Farsari’s negatives destroyed, but also those recently acquired of Stillfried and Anderson, as well those of the pioneering photographer Felice Beato, who was bought out by Stillfried and Anderson in 1877. A year after the fire, in 1887, Farsari reopened his studio with a stock of around 1,000 new images.

Figure 1


  • Title/Caption: Japan, A. Farsari & Co., Yokohama [photographic frontispiece]
  • Year: c. 1887
  • Photographer: Adolfo Farsari (1841-1898)
  • Medium: albumen silver print, sepia tinted
  • Dimensions: 10.25in X 8.25in

The photographic frontispiece that adorned Farsari’s new studio albums [Figure 1] was an amalgamation of Orientalist visual motifs. Sharply-eaved pagodas, irenic bridges, beautiful geisha, antiquated rickshaws, and the famed Mt. Fuji all cluster around the simple, if not entirely self-evident, title of the album – Japan. In the center of the frontispiece we find the iconic Kamakura Daibutsu [Figure 2], the main attraction for tourists in Yokohama who could take a trip and return from the Daibutsu within a day’s time. Unsurprisingly, this photograph, too, was available for individual purchase [Figure 3].

Figure 2: Close up of Figure 1


Figure 3


  • Title/Caption: NA
  • Year: c. 1887
  • Photographer: Adolfo Farsari (1841-1898)
  • Medium: albumen silver print, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 10.25in X 8.25in

The image of the Kamakura Daibutsu is bold and stunning. Balanced and symmetrically positioned within the frame, its stoic countenance greets the viewer with warmth. One of the characteristic, and marketable, traits of Farsari’s albums were their superior coloring. He boasted that his teams of Japanese painters tinted his photos in a realistic manner and guaranteed the colors would not fade, lasting “as long as ordinary oil paintings.” He attributed the effects to the rigorous trainign of his artists, who would apprentice between two and four months, before they were set to work, and to his  imported British paper. Reportedly, an individual artist under Farsari’s tutelage would only color two to three photographs per day, in contrast to the sixty put out by other studio artisrs. His work earned the praise of the famed novelist and poet, Rudyard Kipling, who complimented the faithful coloring of Farsari’s images once seeing the scenic vistas of Japan first hand on his trip through the countryside by steamship in 1889.[2] The gentle greenish-blue hue of the bronze statue here reflects the blue tinting of the sky above, as well as the garment of the kneeling supplicant, creating a cool, but not frigid, overall feeling in this image.

This photo is commonly assumed to be taken after Farsari’s studio fire in 1886, and was one of the centerpieces of his new collection of images given its prominent position in his photographic frontispiece. Farsari also sold a version of the Kamakura Daibutsu in vertical format [Figure 4], possibly taken on the same photography excursion. The kneeling man remains, but four more people are added in a row and all made to gaze upon the idol, causing the scene to look oddly staged. Our vertical image bears the catalogue number of Farsari’s stock (the horizontal image is sometimes marked with “L19 Daibutsu (A)”) and exhibits coloring that has – in contrast to Farsari’s bold claims – faded.

Figure 4


  • Title/Caption: L20 DAI BUTSU (B)
  • Year: c. 1887
  • Photographer: Adolfo Farsari (1841-1898)
  • Medium: albumen silver print, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 10.25in X 8.25in

Always eccentric, Farsari returned home to Italy in 1890, after a twenty-tree year absence, and never returned to Japan.


*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in America. All items (except otherwise noted) are part of my personal collection of Buddhist-themed ephemera.

[1] Bennett 2006: 219. Many details of Farsari’s exciting life – of which I am merely summarizing here – are discussed in Bennett 2006: 219-223.

[2] Bennett 2006: 221, 223.


  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Photography in Japan: 1853-1912. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing.


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