Enami’s Dazzling Bronze Buddha (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

The most widely published Meiji era (1868-1912) photographer was undoubtedly Enami Nobukuni 江南信國 (1859—1929), who worked under the professional alias T. Enami.[1] His shop in Yokohama was a few doors down from his legendary competitor and colleague, Tamamura Kōzaburō 玉村康三郎 (b. 1856), who hired Enami to help complete his order of one-million hand colored albumen prints for the multi-volume work Japan: Described and Illustrated by the Japanese, edited by Captain Francis Brinkley. Enami was expertly skilled in working with all of the popular photography formats, including larger-format prints, souvenir albums, portraiture, and glass lantern slides, but his most significant contributions were in the field of stereophotography. In addition to his considerable expertise, Enami fortuitously also worked during the “Golden Age” of Japanese themed stereoviews, roughly corresponding to the first decade of the twentieth century.

While Enami sold stereoviews under his own imprint in Japan, it was American and European publishers who bought the rights to sell his views that popularized Enami’s work abroad. As was standard practice at the time, publishers often omitted the names of photographers on stereocards, and thus even though American audiences may not have been acquainted with Enami’s name, his eloquent aesthetic vision was integral in shaping Western perceptions of Japan. The first major consigner of Enami’s stereoviews was Griffith & Griffith, a firm who first started issuing Enami’s views of Japan as odd-lots in 1900. Five years later, in response to the wildly popular box sets offered by  competitors, H.C. White, C.H. Graves, and the Underwoods, Griffith & Griffith debuted their inaugural 100-view set of Japan, comprised entirely of Enami stock. The set was revised in 1907, adding variant Enami images. In the intervening years since 1900, Enami’s reputation had grown considerably among the largest publishers of stereocards, and his images were being incorporated into sets issued by C.H Graves, Underwood & Underwood, and T.W. Ingersoll. This continued until the market was consolidated under the massive portfolio acquisition by the Keystone View Company, which then continued to publish Enami’s work several decades into the twentieth century.

IMG_E5866.jpg

  • Title/Caption: The Large Bronze Buddha, Kamakura, Japan
  • Year: 1907
  • Photographer: Enami Nobukuni 江南信國 (1859-1929)
  • Publisher: Griffith & Griffith
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on curved slate-colored card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

Of the views acquired by Griffith & Griffith, Enami’s treatment of the Daibutsu is among the most stunning. While many collectors consider the images of Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935) to be the pinnacle of Japanese stereophotography (Enami is often considered a close second), it is clear that Ponting took his cues in photographing the Daibutsu from Enami’s masterclass in layering and composition. It appears that all of the Griffith’s Enami stock was originally photographed between 1895 and 1900, thus making this image, with the possible exception of Strohmeyer’s 1896 work, the oldest of the major publishers’ views of the Daibutsu. Yet it also remains the most unique and sophisticated.

Setting his camera on the first landing, the furthest from the statue, Enami is able to visually narrate a story unlike his Western contemporaries. The viewer enters the image through the Japanese man at the lower right, who is photographed mid-stride ascending a small flight of steps. Due to the positioning of his head, the viewer presumes his gaze is directed at the woman and two small children down the pathway in front of him. The two children gaze back at him, creating a strong sense that we are observing a family about to reunite. Alone, this visual narrative is strikingly different from the images produced by Western photographers, who tend to highlight the pious religiosity of the Japanese people or the aesthetic qualities of the Daibutsu. Here the Kamakura statue is simply the location where the family gathers, presumably to pray and ask for blessings. There is no overt signaling of awe-struck piousness or odd bodily positioning rendering the scene unnatural. Furthermore, by placing the dwarf palm in the foreground with the man, partly obscuring the view of the Daibutsu, we are afforded a sense of entering a liminal space, within which we find family, safety, and serenity. There is a technical reason for incorporating these foreground elements as well, they would provide a greater illusion of depth when observed through a stereographic viewer.

In addition, there are also signs that Enami was trying to appeal to a Western clientele, most visibly through the elaborate dress. While operating out of his shop in Yokohama, Enami’s premier customer base were Western globetrotting tourists looking to capture a piece of the exotic orient, most typically through the conspicuous ownership of photography. By dressing his subjects in formal and decorative garments, Enami was still able to signal a sense of the Other so prized in souvenir memoribillia, while not fully embracing a hypersexualized or hyper-religious Oriental discourse.[2]

1921 July "The Geography of Japan" - Weston [National Geographic] p64.jpg

The other valued and incomparable skill of Enami was his ability to beautifully hand-tint his photographs. Japanese assisstants had long been assigned hand-coloring tasks in the Western photography studios of Yokohama, and Enami and his workshop produced some of the most meticulous work. A wonderfully colored variant of the Griffith & Griffith view (likely of the “seconds or minutes” variety, meaning both shots were taken in close time proximity of one another) appeared in the pages of National Geographic in July 1921 (pg. 64/pl. IV), showcased along some of the finest journalistic photography of the twentieth century. It is possible the National Geographic variant was originally a stereograph, as Enami regularly used one half of the stereographic negative for his two-dimensional images.

IMG_E5868.jpg

  • Title/Caption: Götzenbild, Japan [“Idolatry, Japan”]
  • Year: (modern reprint of 1912 original)
  • Photographer: Enami Nobukuni 江南信國 (1859-1929)
  • Publisher: Universal Stereoscop Company
  • Medium: (modern reprint on photographic paper)
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

The Central European agency responsible for distributing Griffith & Griffith views was the German firm Nueu Photographische Gesellschaft (NPG), who published a series of 50 Enami views. In 1912, the German publisher Universal Stereoscop Company reissued the NPG stock, adding 50 additional views to make a full 100-view set. Unlike the original production run in the US, Enami’s German images were sold tinted, thus further enhancing the astonishing brilliance of Enami’s work.

Notes

*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in American mass media. All items are part of my personal collection of American Buddhist ephemera.

[1] For more detailed information on the surprisingly elusive life of Enami, see Bennett 2006, and especially the sleuthing of Oechsle 2006. Rob Oechsle also runs the excellent site dedicated to Enami’s oeuvre, t-enami.org.

[2] The ability of Asian agents to navigate and sometimes subvert Orientalist discourses have been encapsulated by several theories of resistance, of which John Kuo Wei Tchen’s notion of “commercial Orientalism” is appropriate here, see Tchen 1999.

References

  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd.
  • Oechsle, Rob. 2006. “Searching for T. Enami,” in Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide, by Terry Bennett. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd, pp. 70-8.
  • Tchen, John Kuo Wei. 1999. New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Keystone’s Tour of the World (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

The Keystone View Company dominated the stereoview market after acquired the negative stocks of H.C. White in 1915 and Underwood & Underwood in 1921, effectively making them the last major publisher of this once immensely popular form of home entertainment and education.[1] Even though the development of “nickelodeons” and larger cinematic theaters would become the preferred form of “virtual travel” for most Americans through the early twentieth century, Keystone remained in operation through the 1970’s, long after the business’ highest commercial sucess.[2] Keystone had long emphasized the educational virtues of their products, regularly imprinting detailed descriptions on the reverse of their mounts or offering booklets with narrative accounts as accompaniments to their larger sets. In the 1920’s Keystone started offering massive 400 and 600 “World Tour” sets, both of which contained older images of late Meiji-era Japan, photographed between approximately 1896 and 1906. In 1935/6, Keystone unveiled its most audacious product to date, a monumental 1200-view “Tour of the World” set, weighing around 70 pounds with all of its cards and accoutrements. This Keystone set was the first to incorporate newly photographed images of Japan in two decades, all taken by an unknown photographer.

IMG_E5849.jpg

  • Title/Caption: The Colossal Daibutsu in Cherry-Blossom Time – the Great Buddha of Kamakura, Japan
  • Year: 1935-6
  • Photographer: unknown
  • Publisher: Keystone View Company (#925 out of 1200 card “Tour of the World” set)
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on curved card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

This final Keystone view of the Daibutsu would emerge as its most famous. Leering in from the right side of the photograph is a white hand-painted sign plainly stating, “No Photographing Allowed Here.”[3] By photographing this sign, our unknown photographer lays bare the long-standing tensions between tourists and the temple. For many travelers, the only reason to visit the Kamakura colossus was precisely to have their image taken, sometimes perched in his lap, as a sign of their conquest of the Orient. The infrequent, interpid Yokohama globetrotter of the 1860’s had ballooned into the large-scale tourist excursion parties of the early 1900’s, promoted by a thriving tourism industry. By the 1930’s, the temple had decades-old regulations limiting amateur photography, and several Western travelogues describe the difficulty in procuring a good image of the Daibutsu, sometimes needing to distract the temple priet in order to surreptisiously take a quick photograph.

With the rules not permitting closer access with camera equipment, this late-issue Keystone image frames the Great Buddha at a greater distance than most stereoviews. Visual attention is directed to the foreground where three Western tourists stand with their backs towards the Daibutsu. With two women posed formally and a man holding his hat looking to the side, a crowd of Westerners is also seen touring the grounds behind them. A single Buddhist priest can be found strolling among the onlookers. The Daibutsu functions as a backdrop to the visual narrative centering on the three tourists. The statue efficiently signals the Otherness that envelopes the tourists throughout their foreign adventures. While many facets of their trip are the same as home, some things are wildly out of step with their norm and those are precisely the things that need to be seen. This photographic souvenir proves their success in capturing the exotic Other. Unlike the numerous stereoviews published previously, little visual focus is placed on the activities of the native Japanese; the sole priest walks casually, unaffected by the religious icon. The caption, too, supports a focus on tourist activities, noting this visit took place during “Cherry-Blossom Time,” a period optimal for camaraderie, sightseeing, and picture taking.

IMG_E5857.jpg

The description on the mount’s reverse cribs from the older Underwood & Underwood card, updating the preferred mode of transportation from rail to “motor car” and mentioning the Greant Kantō earthquake of 1923. Harkening back to the magnificent past of Kamakura and noting the immense dimensions of the Daibutsu, the reader is afforded the necessary contextualizing elements that make the “virtual tour” even more realistic. The last sentence dramatically underscores the appeal of the location, almost as if a pitch delivered in a travel magazine or tourist brochure: “This great Buddha is one of the most dramatic sights in Japan and is said to be the largest bronze statue in the world.” This fact would be all the more apparent for the numerous tourists who made the trip, both virtually and in real life.

Notes

*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in American mass media. All items are part of my personal collection of American Buddhist ephemera.

[1] For more detailed information on the Keystone Company, see Bennett 2006.

[2] Although many images were looted in the intervening years, the remaining Keystone stock was donated to the California Museum of Photography, at the University of California, Riverside, and catalogued as the Keystone-Mast Collection. The contact print of the above stereoview is identified as 1996.0009.33903.SS.

[3] Based on the original negative from the Keystone-Mast Collection, the entirety of the sign reads, “No Photographing Allowed Here. Amateurs may Photograph from positions reserved for them. The Prior.”

References

  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd.

Keystone’s “Colossal Bronze Statue of Buddha” (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

Throughout the 1890’s the Keystone View Company, founded in Pennsylvania by Benneville Lloyd Singley (1864-1938), produced a steady stream of stereoviews, but nothing in comparison to its prodigious output in the coming decades.[1] Around 1901, Keystone issued its first images of Japan, a run of 23 odd-lot stereoviews taken by an unknown photographer. Even though Singley’s name is imprinted on the mounts as copyright holder, he is not believed to be the photographer of the small series of Japan views. The publishing and distributing arm of Keyston in London, operating under the name of Fine Art Photographer’s Publishing Company, also issued the same Japan series on a buff-tan colored mounts through 1905. In response to the popularity of the boxed sets dedicated to Japan offered by competitors C.H. Graves, H.C. White, and the Underwoods, Keystone debuted its own “Tour of Japan” sets in 1906, comprised of the original 23 views supplemented by new images taken during the Russo-Japan War of 1904-5. Even though Keystone was relatively late to the Japan-view market, by 1921 it had acquired the negative stocks of all its main competitors, and it emerged as the sole prolific publisher of Japan-view box sets, mostly drawing upon its massive portfolio of images taken more than a decade earlier, between 1896 and 1906.

IMG_E5858

  • Title/Caption: “Daibutsu” – The Colossal Bronze Statue of Buddha, Kamakura Japan
  • Year: c. 1906
  • Photographer: unknown
  • Publisher: Keystone View Company, Benneville Lloyd Singley (1864-1938)(#61 out of 72/100?)
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on curved slate-colored card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

In the first Keystone release of the bronze colossus, the Daibutsu dominates the image. The top of its head is clipped by the frame, giving the impression that the statue it too large to behold.[2] Similar to the Strohmeyer image, our anonymous photographer places two well-groomed Japanese women in the foreground, cropped at the feet and waist, providing a sense of scale for the towering statue. Wearing lushly patterned garments and coiffured hair, the women appear more cosmopolitan than their rustic setting might suggest and their conspicuous presence hints at the hypersexual motifs flowing through Orientalist discourse. The formality of the composition is offset by two elements; the presence of a dog looking back at the viewer, and the positioning of a child on the far left, gazing towards the dog. These mundane elements clash with the distinctive, orchestrated dress of the women and overall diminish the sense that viewer is looking at a scene of pious activity. By virtue of its sheer size occupying most of the frame, the Daibutsu is given the most visual weight, and consequently the onlookers are relegated to secondary importance. Noting its “colossal” size, the caption gives literary form to the numerous visual cues asking the viewer to appreciate the aesthetics of the statue over its religious meaning to the worshippers.

IMG_5862.jpg

Moreover, the description on the reverse immediately situates the Daibutsu among the greatest works of world art, claiming it is “the masterpiece of Japanese statuary,” and “one of the great art creations of all time.” This is immediately followed by a poetic verse taken from an Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, In Memoriam: “A statue solid-set, and moulded in colossal calm.” Strikingly in line with many contemporary descriptions of the Daibutsu (the original context for the lines, however, is overcoming loss and regret), this quote provides a lyrical force to the aesthetics of the statue. This then dovetails into a gloss description of Buddhism, where another quoted passage describes the beauty and majesty of the Daibutsu as a symbol for the profundity and power of the Buddhist religion as a whole (as was typical, the Daibutsu was mistaken for the historical founder of the tradition). Interestingly, the Tennyson quote and the astute characterization was not pulled from a scholarly reference, but Murray’s “red book” travel guide, authored by no less eminent authority than Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850-1935).[3]

Notes

*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in American mass media. All items are part of my personal collection of American Buddhist ephemera.

[1] For more detailed information on the Keystone Company, see Bennett 2006.

[2] Ponting also regularly clipped the head of the Daibutsu in framing his shot, though for the different effect of including Japanese worshippers in the foreground.

[3] Chamberlain had significantly enlarged the original edition by Ernest Satow, but only added the Tennyson quote in the 5th edition, published in 1898, see A Handbook for Travellers in Japan, 5th ed., pp. 96-7.

References

  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd.

Ponting and White’s “Sacred Daibitsu” (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

By 1902, the 72-view “Strohmeyer Set” issued by Underwood & Underwood dominated the market of Japanese themed stereoview cards. Hawley C. White (b. 1847?), motivated to transform the stereograph from novelty item to educational tool, work for three years developing his “White Travel Tours” and issued the first challenge to the Underwood monopoly. White’s “Perfec” Stereograph company would publish its first set of 72-views of Japan in 1902, replacing them with a brand-new series of 100-views in 1905. To procure images for this new 100-view series, White called upon the now-experienced stereo-photographer Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935), who was commissioned by the studios run by H.C. Graves and the Underwoods in the preceding years to produce their catalogues of Japanese stereoviews.[1] This would mark the third trip to Japan for Ponting, who would arrive around the fall of 1904 and photograph through to the summer of 1905. Ponting would return to Japan two more times working for White and would eventually collect his reminiscences of his travels in his 1910 work, In Lotus-Land Japan, profusely illustrated by his own photography.

IMG_E5842.jpg

  • Title: The Sacred Daibutsu, Colossal Bronze Image of Buddha, Kamakura, Japan
  • Year: 1905
  • Photography:  Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935)
  • Publisher: The “Perfec” Stereograph; Hawley C. White (B. 1847?) (#23 out of 100)
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on olive-colored card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

This commissioned image on olive-colored mount shows the maturation of Ponting’s work over the years. He positions his camera in almost the exact same spot as for his Underwood & Underwood image a year prior, off-center to the left, almost at three-quarters view. The late day sun hangs low in the sky, illuminating the near side of the Daibutsu’s faces. These compositional conventions are also present in the work of Enami Nobukuni 江南信國 (1859-1929), a famed Yokohama photographer and stereographer with whose work Ponting was familiar.[2] Moreover, Ponting seems to have been influenced by Enami’s positioning of people, thinning out the crowd of people present in his Underwood funded excursion to Kamakura. Now, three Japanese men are placed at different depths, each appearing to be in mid-stride as they walk towards the Daibutsu. This creates an effect of motion as the viewer’s eyes are drawn into the mighty bronze statue. By placing these onlookers at different depths, the stereographic effect would also have greater impact, creating a better sense of three-dimensionality and dynamism. While the gaze of the visitors is towards the Daibutsu, the object of reverence, their attitude is more casual. This is in contrast to Ponting’s earliest attempts at creating the mise-en-scène where onlookers were directed to kneel, a transparent attempt to signal piety to the viewer. Even though the men here are not Western tourists, one cannot help think that they may be partaking in an afternoon stroll to see the local attractions. The caption presents a similar ambiguity. Although it qualifies the Daibutus as “sacred,” it does not refer to the nature of the visitors; are they worshippers or local sight-seers? Furthermore, by describing the Daibitsu as a “colossal bronze image,” it underscores its aesthetic dimensions and fine craftsmanship admired by Western sightseers.

IMG_E5847.jpg

The reverse of the card in imprinted with the caption in six different languages (omitting the word “sacred” in all of them, however) and a brief description of the locale. It is written in the style of a guidebook or travelogue, providing distances, historical dates, and some descriptive vocabulary. There is only the briefest passing mention on Buddhist belief, really just noting the “brooding calm” of the Buddha “musing upon Nirvana,” before continuing to describe the dimensions and material composition of the statue. It closes by advising the reader to consult with two books for more information about Japan, namely Edith Singleton’s Japan as Seen and Described by Famous Writers, published in 1905, and Anne C. Hartshorne’s Japan and Her People, published in 1902. Both are dominated by travel writing, and as such only add to the sense that viewing stereocards was presented as a form of virtual travel.

Notes

*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in American mass media. All items are part of my personal collection of American Buddhist ephemera.

[1] For more detailed information on Ponting and White, see Bennett 2006.

[2] Ponting’s stereoviews were supplemented by Enami’s own work in both the sets commissioned by C.H. Graves and Underwood & Underwood.

References

  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd.

Graves’ “Stereoscopic Gem” (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

Carlton Harlow Graves (d. 1943?) was a provocateur. His early published stereoviews contained several pirated images, including several taken of Japan. When he hired Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935) in 1901 to create his own private stock of Japanese negatives, he then issued a set of 200 Japan views, unprecedented in size and more than doubling the number published in a single set by his closest competitors.[1] Furthermore, Graves also sought to cater to the lower-priced markets (standard cards were sold at six for a dollar), and he began operating under several different company names, rebranding constantly before he left the stereoview business in 1907. One of these ventures issued images on cheap slate-colored mounts with the “Stereoscopic Gems of American and Foreign Scenery” imprint. Released between 1902 and 1905, Graves is believed to have re-used Ponting’s negatives first commissioned for the premier set of 200 views.

IMG_5830.jpg

  • Title/Caption: Colossal Statue of Buddha Kamakura Japan [on negative]
  • Year: c. 1902-5
  • Photographer: Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935)
  • Publisher: Stereoscopic Gems of American and Foreign Scenery, Carlton Harlow Graves (d. 1943?)
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on curved slate-colored card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

This stereoview is unlike many of its elite contemporaries, printed on smaller and untrimmed photographic paper and mounted on cheaper card stock. Moreover, the caption is not imprinted on the mount, but superimposed onto the negative in a style quite reminiscent of Yokohama photography studios. Although this image is different from the 200-view set, it is almost certainly the work of Ponting. The camera is set at almost the exact same location as the view issued under the Universal Photo Art Company imprint, panned out slightly to incorporate the young woman and child in the foreground. Both photographs were also taken at the same time of day, high-noon, when the overhead sun cast the darkest shadow on the Daibutsu’s face and neck, suggesting the same photographer who preferred such stylized shots. The kneeling men, however, are the clearest hallmark of Ponting’s directions, an element wholly unseen in other stereographic images of this bronze statue, and otherwise highly uncommon in previous studio photography.[2] The common gaze of the onlookers towards the Daibutsu, combined with the reverent posturing of the kneeling men, creates an atmosphere of religious piety. It is important to note, however, that the caption on the negative does bolster such a perspective of religious Otherness, but instead highlights the aesthetic qualities of the statue, noting its size as “colossal.” This conforms to the genre conventions used in Yokohama port photography generally, whereas titles imprinted on stereocards more typically brought attention to the worshippers or the religious activities in the scene. If this image was indeed taken by Ponting during his tour of Japan in 1901-2, it is clear to see why his other image was selected for the flagship series and this one was relegated to the cheaper run-offs. The irregular spacing of the kneeling men and the cropped body of the woman creates an unbalanced composition; a mediocre view for the mediocre stock it was mounted on.

Notes

*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in American mass media. All items are part of my personal collection of American Buddhist ephemera.

[1] For more detailed information on Ponting and Graves, see Bennett 2006.

[2] The most notable exception being Adolpho Farsari’s large-format albumen print of the early 1880’s.

References

  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd.

Ponting & Graves’ “Largest Idol in the East” (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

Carlton Harlow Graves (d. 1943?) started operating his Universal Photo Art Company in the early 1880’s and eventually started offering pirated views of Japan on buff/tan-colored flat mounts possibly in the late 1890s. Looking to enter into the market dominated by Underwood & Underwood’s “Strohmeyer Set,” Graves hired an unexperienced stereo-photographer, Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935), to expand and establish his company’s Japan portfolio.[1] Having only turned a professional photographer a year before, Ponting arrived in Japan around the fall of 1901 and photographed the scenery of Japan into early 1902. This was the first of at least five extended stays over the next five years for Ponting who would go on to work for three different seteroview publishers in his short career. Graves decided to use Ponting’s images as the base for a massive 200-view series on Japan, unprecedented in size given that only 72-view sets of Japan were issued at the time. It would be several years before other publishers would offer anything of a similar scope. This was the first and only time Ponting worked for Graves, but the portfolio of Japanese images Ponting would build over the next few years would increase his reputation significantly, ultimately allowing him to be invited as the official photographer for the ill-fated British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13. On the eve of leaving for the expedition in 1910, Ponting published his reminiscences of his stays in Japan as In Lotus-Land Japan, profusely illustrated by his own photography.

IMG_E5827.jpg

  • Title/Caption: Worshipping at the Shrine of the Great Daibutsu, the Largest Idol in the East. Kamakura, Japan
  • Year: 1902
  • Photography:  Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935)
  • Publisher: Universal Photo Art Company, Carlton Harlow Graves (d. 1943?)(#70 out of 200)
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on curved slate-colored card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

Ponting’s image of the Daibutsu is uncommon in several regards. It gives significant visual weight to the row of four Japanese men kneeling, eyes downcast, in apparent reverence to the Buddhist image. This kneeling posture is almost unique among the hundreds of stereo-photographs of this temple scene. Indeed, the only other image with kneeling supplicants I have encountered I suspect to also be under Ponting’s artistic direction. The orchestration of such a scene should not be too surprising. The visual cue of kneeling would immediately signal to a Western audience a pious act of religiosity. The caption on the card also makes it apparent that the act of worshipping is to be highlighted, as are the non-aesthetic religious dimensions of the statue, which is clearly labeled an “idol.”

The lowered heads of the men mirror that of the Daibutsu, who in turn softly gazes down at them, creating an atmosphere of solemnity, possibly even penitence. The garments worn by the men create a strong contrast and the bold design keeps bringing the viewer’s eye back to their reverent posturing. The foreign-looking crests on their backs remind the viewer that they are not Western tourists. The clothing is traditional festival wear (happi 法被), and it remains unclear if Ponting was entirely fortunate to be photographing on the day of a festival, or if he hired the men to don the festive, bold attire; though I suspect the latter. In other regards, the images is fairly standard, taken from almost the same frontal position as Strohmeyer’s version, but cropped more tightly around the Daibutsu, who in turn becomes more centered. By having the men kneeling, an illusion is created whereby the perfectly centered Daibutsu appears larger, almost as if determining the fate of the men.

Notes

*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in American mass media. All items are part of my personal collection of American Buddhist ephemera.

[1] For more detailed information on Ponting and Graves, see Bennett 2006.

References

  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd.

Underwood & Underwood’s Tourist Excursion (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

After Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, “commercial Orientalism” continued to thrive as the American public still clung to the lingering traces of “Japan Fever,” even in the wake of a growing racialized threat in the form of a modernized Japanese state.[1] The first decade of the twentieth century saw the heyday of Japanese themed stereoviews, as the three major publishing houses of C.H. Graves, H.C. White, and the Underwoods were offering no less than eight different 100-view sets.[2] The growing popularity of amateur photography and the widespread reproduction of images more generally in books, magazines, and newspapers afforded less cultural prestige to the ownership of large collections of stereoviews. Eventually, “nickelodeons” and larger theaters would become the preferred form of “virtual travel” for most Americans by the 1910’s. By 1908, Underwood & Underwood issued its last major catalogue of stereoviews before downsizing its stock of negatives in a slow sell-off to its rival Keystone and transforming its business into one of the first stock photography companies. In addition to publishing the “Ponting set” of 1904, Underwood & Underwood continued to issue a second 100-view Japan set and a Russo-Japanese War set, both initially offered in 1905. Moreover, in looking to cater to sophisticated clientele, Underwood & Underwood began assigning a stereo-photographer to accompany wealthy tourists on world cruises aboard the S.S. Cleveland and marketed new sets directly to these cultured elite. Between 1908 and 1915, many of the new views were taken by anonymous company photographers, and possibly even accomplished amateurs, who joined the tourist excursion parties to various stops around Japan.

IMG_5840.jpg

  • Title/Caption: The Kakamura Wonder [handwritten on reverse]
  • Year: c. 1905-1914?
  • Photographer: unknown
  • Publisher: Underwood & Underwood
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on curved slate-colored card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

I believe this stereocard to be from one of these later anonymous photographers. There are some clues in the scene which suggest it comes from the decade between 1905 and 1915. The wooden coin box in front of the offering table has lost its picketed fencing and small gabled roof, easily identifiable features found in photographs taken up through 1905.[3] In addition, the presence of tourists atop the Daibutsu along with a small ladder at the lower right of the statue to facilitate the climb suggest this photograph was taken before these activities were forbidden, around 1914, if not earlier.[4] Moreover, the composition of the image is quite unlike the images professionally published before. The mise-en-scène is uncharacteristically frenetic and claustrophobic. The foreground is cluttered with half-cropped onlookers dressed in western attire – likely members of a tourist excursion party? Their gaze is directed in several off-camera directions as they amble about the space with no seeming purpose. Significant visual attention is afforded to the two tourists standing in the lap and hands of the Daibutsu, confronting the viewer’s gaze directly. Their frontal posturing perched in front of the main tourist attraction reminds us of the endless number of albumen prints circulating the Yokohama photography studios decades before. For the tourists, this composition signals a desire to be seen, and as a consequence, to be certified in their quest for authentic exotica. Unlike the images of Strohmeyer and Ponting, which underscore the religious elements of the temple setting, this anonymous photograph substitutes the devoted worshipper with the discerning tourist. As a result, the Daibutsu is cast as a harmless object to be collected and admired for its aesthetic properties. It becomes a prop to secure the cultural capital of those posed in front of it.

Notes

*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in American mass media. All items are part of my personal collection of American Buddhist ephemera.

[1] John Kuo Wei Tchen describes a market driven commodity Orientalism used to gratify the American desire for exotica that operated at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Although he is mainly concerned with explaining the desire for Chinese-styled goods, the same theory can be applied to the passionate American taste for Japan. See Tchen 1999.

[2] For more on the popularity of stereoviews during this period see Bennett 2006.

[3] Specifically, the photos for H.C. White’s 1905 100-veiw set by Herbert Ponting were taken in the fall of 1904 and summer of 1905, and given the lushness of the foliage and warm-weather clothing of the onlookers strolling around the Daibutsu, it seems the image was taken in the summer of 1905.

[4] This is noted in the guidebook entitled Terry’s Japanese Empire, published in 1914 (pg. 29). By 1910, Ponting was alreadying noting the difficulty in taking photographs in part to the rude behavior of tourists looking to climb atop the Daibutsu, see In Lotus-Land Japan, p. 357. Given that Ponting last visited Japan in 1906, it appears this was a long-standing issue.

References

  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd.
  • Tchen, John Kuo Wei. 1999. New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.