Ponting and the Underwoods’ “Majestic Calm” of the Kamakura Daibutsu (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

After completing his series of photographs commissioned by C.H. Graves and the Universal Photo Art Company, Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935) was hired by the premier publishers of stereoviews, Underwood & Underwood, in 1903 to take new stereo-photographs of the scenery of Japan.[1] These new images would replace the older series by Henry Strohmeyer, which was already almost a decade into its profitable run. For this set, Underwood & Underwood would expand the total number of views from 72 to 100, bringing them up to pace with their competitors who were enlarging their Japanese portfolios. Ponting was in Japan (or it neighboring regions) from spring to late fall 1903, and his images were published on the now-standard slate-colored mounts in 1904. By the end of his stereo-photography career, Ponting would have produced more images of Japan than any other Western stereo-photographer, having shot eight separate volumes of 100-view sets for an array of publishers in the first decade of the twentieth century. His reminiscences of his stays in Japan were published in 1910 as In Lotus-Land Japan, not surprisingly illustrated by copious amounts of his own photography.


  • Title/Caption: Majestic Calm of the Great Bronze Buddha, Revered for Six Centuries, (Facing S.W.) Kamakura, Japan
  • Year: 1904
  • Photographer: Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935)
  • Publisher: Underwood & Underwood; part of  “Tour of Japan” (#11 out of 100)
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on curved slate-colored card
  • Dimensions: 7 in x 3.5 in

Ponting’s approach to photographing the Daibutsu stands in contrast to that of Strohmeyer. Avoiding the all-too-common frontal symmetry employed by decades of professional and amateur photographers, Ponting takes his image from a few paces off-center, almost at three-quarters view (and abandons having his subjects kneel in reverence). It is possible he was imitating the composition made famous by his contemporary Enami Nobukuni 江南信國 (1859-1929), who fastidiously avoided the frontal view of the Daibutsu, albeit with far more panache than Ponting. In Ponting’s image, the scene is crowded by Japanese onlookers, comprised of men, women, and children, all paying homage to the Buddhist image, with those closest lowering their heads in reverence. With the worshipper’s feet firmly planted and their gaze seemingly synchronized, the scene appears a touch too orchestrated. There is one exception, however. In the lower left, a young woman and baby gaze off to the side and back, with the eyes of the child seemingly looking directly at the viewer. Due to this eye contact, the viewer is made uncomfortable; attention is brought to the ethnographic voyeurism at play in such images. Acting as a real tourist, the viewer is “sight-seeing” as well as being seen by the actors in this imaginary drama. [2]

The casualness of the worshippers, dressed in a variety of loose-fitting garments, and the presence of the resting dog reassert some of the mundaneness of the scene. Looking more closely, we can spot a young man reclining on the base of the left lantern, adding to the sense that the viewer is actually peering into the daily temple environs. The caption brings attention to the “majestic calm” of the Daibutsu, asking the viewer to recognize the serenity of the setting, despite the small crowd of worshippers looking frozen in their spots. The photograph and its accompanying caption strike a balance between highlighting the wonder of the statue and the religious activities of Japanese commoners.

In addition to the multi-lingual captioning on the reverse side of the card saved from its 72-view predecessor, this set also included a lengthy description and history of the scene depicted on the obverse (some variant editions lack this description, however). By opening with a second-person form of address (“You are about an hour’s ride by rail…”), the readers are immediately transported into the role of a globetrotting tourist making their way through the foreign terrain of Japan. The three-dimensional effect of stereoviews combined the stylized point-of-view of the description all act to make the beholder of the card a truly virtual tourist. The descriptive account employs ample amounts of pathos, drawing upon nostalgia for the “old times of mediæval splendor” and nuanced detail of the craftsmanship of the statue, highlighting the value of the “solid gold” eyes and “pure silver” ūrṇā. In form, this does not differ greatly from the genre of guidebooks and travel account narratives, of which many readers would likely be familiar. The description ends with comments on Japanese religious practice, and directs readers to Lafcadio Hearn’s (1850-1904) Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, first published in 1894 and which had become a popular seller.[3]

Underwood & Underwood also produced a half-stereo “positive” image (the inverse of the original negative image) as a magic lantern slide. Lantern slides were marketed for use during public “lecture-sermons” – often called stereopticon shows –  where an individual could present on a topic to a crowd gathered at a theatre, church, fraternal lodge, or private home. Underwood & Underwood sold (and rented) pre-made lecture-sermons which contained a script of about twenty-five to forty minutes and forty to sixty slides. While our specimen below is black and white, the set would contain sepia colored slides as well as full color sldies to give “variety pleasing to the eye.”


  • Title/Caption: Great Bronz [sic] Buddha, Kamakura Japan.
  • Year: 1904
  • Photographer: Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935)
  • Publisher: Underwood & Underwood; (#3850)
  • Medium: glass and photographic emulsion, paper


*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. I have also published my working notes on identifying publishers of Meiji and early Taishō postcards and establishing a sequential chronology for Kamakura Daibutsu photographs.

[1] For more detailed information on Ponting and the publishers Underwood & Underwood, see Bennett 2006.

[2] It was not uncommon for stereoview publishers to sell the rights of their images for used in other printed venues. Half of Ponting’s stereoview, for example, was used in Clive Holland’s Things Seen in Japan, published in 1907, (pg. 215). This stereocard can also be viewed here.

[3] As described by Thomas Tweed, Hearn was a romanticist, focusing on the exotic, aesthetic, and literary dimensions of Buddhism, see Tweed 2000. This would be a natural fit for the middle-to-upper class consumers of stereoviews, who would have shared many similar sentiments.


  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Old Japanese Photographs Collector’s Data Guide. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. 2000. The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent, Revised Edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.