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 grow into a commercial success. In 1885 he acquired the negative and stocks of the famed Stillfried and Anderson firm and opened 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 photographic souvenirs of famous sites. By this period, photography no longer relied upon the difficult technical skills it once required, in large part due to the adoption of the easier “dry-plate” process. Consequently, this change in technology also motivated a shift in social significance, as the photograph started a transition from a fine piece of art to a commodified object.[1] Farsari’s early successes in Yokohama were almost robbed of him completely, as a devastating fire ravaged the port just a year after he opened his business, subsequently destroying his studio and prized 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 Yokohama 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  was an amalgamation of Orientalist visual motifs [Fig. 1]. Sharply-eaved pagodas, irenic bridges, beautiful geisha, antiquated rickshaws, and the famed Mt. Fuji all converge around the simple title of the album – Japan. In the center of the frontispiece we find the iconic Kamakura Daibutsu, a main attraction for tourists sojourning in Yokohama [Fig. 2]. One could travel to Kamakura and back on horseback within a day’s time. Unsurprisingly, Farsari also sold this photograph for individual purchase [Fig. 3].

Figure 2 (detail 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

Farsari’s image of the Kamakura Daibutsu is bold. Balanced and symmetrically positioned within the frame, the colossal statue’s stoic countenance greets the viewer with warmth. One of the characteristic, and highly marketable, traits of Farsari’s prints were their superior coloring. He boasted that his teams of Japanese painters tinted his photos in a realistic manner, unlike the work of his rivals’ studios. He attributed the effects to the rigorous training of his artists, who would apprentice between two and four months before they were set to work. Reportedly, an individual artist under Farsari’s tutelage would only color two to three photographs per day, in contrast to the sixty prints issued by other studios’ artists. Furthermore, Farsari guaranteed the colors on his photographs would not fade, lasting “as long as ordinary oil paintings.” This he attributed to his stock of imported British paper. Farsari’s work earned the praise of the famed novelist and poet, Rudyard Kipling. He complimented the faithful coloring of Farsari’s prints once he saw the scenic vistas of Japan first hand on his trip through the countryside 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, possibly taken on the same photography excursion [Fig. 4]. 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 in the lower left corner, a standard practice among Japanese photography studios (the horizontal image above is sometimes marked with “L19 Daibutsu (A)”). Curiously, the vertical image  appears – in contrast to Farsari’s bold advertising claims – to have 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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