To See a Buddha: A Visual Literacy of Buddhism in America (Digital Exhibit)

[This is a online version of my Archive exhibit at the UCSB Religious Studies Department. Many thanks to Will Chavez for his enthusiastic support and assistance.]

UCSB Exhibit

What do you think the Buddha looked like?

My research has been guided by this deceptively complex question. As Americans were first introduced to Buddhism on a mass level in the latter half of the nineteenth century, I became interested in how they also developed a “visual literacy” of Buddhist images. Before the happy Laughing Buddha was popular, the Great Buddha of Kamakura was the most prominent visual icon. This Great Buddha, or in Japanese, “Daibutsu,” was constructed in 1252. Here’s a look of how this statue made its way into the American imagination.

The Albumen Print and Yokohama Shashin


The popularity of the Kamakura Daibutsu in America was accidental. When Japan re-opened its borders to foreigners in 1859, the port of Yokohama – a short day’s ride from Kamakura – was selected as one of the treaty ports were foreigners could legally reside. The close proximity of Kamakura Daibutsu to this bustling port city was a significant factor in its blossoming popularity.

In addition, two other factors played a role in the recognizability of the Kamakura Daibutsu: the development of the international tourism industry and the invention of the camera. Globetrotting tourists who hoped to preserve their picturesque travels in souvenir photographs unwittingly helped promote a visual identity of an exotic Japan back home in America, with geisha, rickshaws, and Buddhist “idols,” such as the Kamakura Daibutsu.

Because of the sheer number of wealthy tourists in Yokohama, professional photography studios started to open their doors for business. These studios, operated at first by foreign residents, sold souvenir albums to fit the needs of their eager clientele. These souvenir photos were called Yokohama shashin, or “Yokohama photographs,” due to the high concentration of studios in this port city.

Adolfo Farsari (1841-1898), an Italian adventurer, eventually settled in Yokohama in the 1870s. Farsari entered a fiercely competitive photography industry when he bought out an established photography studio to open his own firm, A. Farsari & Co. Like his competitors, he sold photographs and pre-made albums to wealthy “globetrotters” who sought to return home with photographs of famous sites.

The first commercially viable photographic process produced what are known as albumen prints. They used albumen found in egg whites to bind the photosensitive chemicals to the paper.

After the monochromatic print was processed, artists would hand apply watercolor washes to provide vibrant color. Often these artists were Japanese, some who may have been trained in traditional Japanese woodblock printing.

Picture Postcards and the Collotype Process



Although photography had been in existence for over half a century, some claim that the first truly commodified form of the photograph was the picture postcard. Small and inexpensive, the postcard was a convenient souvenir that could easily be sent around the world for the appreciation and amusement of someone else.

The Japanese postal delivery service began in 1870, but it was not until 1900 that new postal regulations allowed for private companies to print their own postcards. In Japan, the postcard soon rivaled the traditional woodblock print as the favored medium to present contemporary Japanese images.

Early postcard images were commonly recycled photographs from old souvenir photography studios. In 1905, spurred by the international interest in photographing the Russo-Japanese War, a picture postcard boom hit Japan, breathing life into a new industry and collecting hobby.  Still catering to a thriving tourism industry, the private postcard publishers reshot the same generic imagery that sold well as albumen prints, including the Kamakura Daibutsu.

One of the most prolific postcard publishers of the period was the Ueda Photographic Prints Corporation, founded by Ueda Yoshizō上田義三 in the port of Yokohama around 1905. Because printing photos was exceptionally expensive and time consuming, new mechanical photographic reproduction processes were soon invented.  The development of a new printing technique, called the collotype, allowed for photomechanical printing – and the creation of inexpensive postcards – on a massive scale.

Stereophotography and Stereoviews


Perhaps one of the most curious forms of early photography involved a technique for making stereoscopic images.  By placing  a pair of slightly different images – taken by two cameras separated by about the distance between a person’s eyes – and viewing them through a stereoscope, they would merge and create an illusion of depth, thus mimicking three dimensional viewing.  An early form of virtual reality, stereocards, or stereoviews, became wildly popular by the end of the nineteenth century.

Although some stereoviews were sold in Japan, most stereoviews were sold directly to Americans in department stores, through mail-order catalogues, and by savvy door-to-door salesmen. A surviving manual for salesman instructs them in the “hard sell,” scripting a sales pitch to say: “You see, nearly everyone is getting a ‘scope and views, and really, so should you. One like this will last you all your days.”

Mass produced Japan-themed stereocard sets first started to appear in 1896, but dozens of Japan sets were available just a decade later. These images were no longer tourist souvenirs, but imaginary escapes for people who did not possess the wealth of a world-touring globetrotter. Many of the same images found in Yokohama photography studios and postcards publishers were used to paint an image of the exotic Orient.

In 1903, the novice professional photographer, Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935), was hired by the premier publishers of stereoviews, Underwood & Underwood to take new stereo-photographs of the scenery of Japan. As with many other publishers, he captured the “majestic calm” of the Kamakura Daibutsu.

Originally novelty items that could be paired with parlor games, stereoviews soon started to be marketed as educational tools. Eventually the reverse was filled with descriptive text, often taken directly from tourist books published a decade or more earlier.

From Idol to Icon


By the first decade of the twentieth century, the image of the Kamakura Daibutsu not only circulated through photographic prints, postcards, and stereoviews –  as we have seen already – but also through numerous travel books, magazine articles, and newspaper columns. The image was so often reproduced that it no longer signified a bronze statue, but an amorphous idea, a veritable icon of the exotic Orient.

It is not surprising that such an icon found favor among early modern advertising firms. The growing tourism and cruise ship industry was one of the early adopters of the Kamakura Daibutsu image. The Pacific Mail Steamship company, the first to offer a regular trans-Pacific route from San Francisco to Yokohama in 1867, used it in its magazine ads. Even the Japanese cruise company, Nippon Yūsen Kaisha (NYK) used the Daibutus in their English-language brochures.

The statue also took on more artistic renderings, gracing the cover for the sheet music to “Buddha,” composed by Lew Pollack in 1918 for a Vaudeville act. Lyrics were added the following year by Ed Rose, and it became a popular “foxtrot” dance record for home enjoyment. In addition, the Daibutsu image was also used to add an exotic quality to mundane home goods, such as incense.

The exotic image was also used as a symbol of foreign danger, and can be found in the background of movie sets, such as the Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), reflecting racist and xenophobic undercurrents of American culture. After WWII, the Daibutsu manifested again as popular souvenir trinkets marketed to overseas soldiers, such as cigar ash trays.

The Kamakura Daibtusu continued to be used widely in American advertising  throughout the 1950’s, before the allure of the Laughing Buddha started to take a firm hold in the American imagination.

Did You Know?

Both the Laughing Buddha and the Great Buddha of Kamakura are not actually images of the historical Buddha!! They are representations of different buddhas, Maitreya Buddha and Amitābha Buddha respectively – consider taking a Religious Studies class to learn about these figures!

Where’s Waldo?: Did you spot the happy, lounging temple dog that was photographed in both a stereoview and postcard in this exhibition?


[Thank you for your virtual visit!]




The “Buddha” Foxtrot by Pollack and Rose (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

Listen to the Victor Record’s 1920 recording of Pollack and Rose’s “Buddha” here: 

What is the sound of the “Orient”? As Edward Said has shown, the “Orient” is more of an imaginary idea than a physical location. Because of this, several musical tropes have emerged in American consciousness that create an “Oriental atmosphere,” perhaps none more famous than the nine-note “Oriental riff” (da-da-da-da dah-dah, dah-dah daah). This simple tune became widely popular in the 1910s and was utilized, for example, in numerous racially stereotyped cartoons of the 1930’s through the 1950’s[1].

It should be remembered, however, that before the widespread popularity of the phonograph, music still had to be played live to be heard. The publishing and selling of sheet music for home use was still widely practiced in the early twentieth century and because the American working class still clamored for the exotic Orient, musicians continued to compose “yellowvoice” Orientalist music.[2]

Early in his career, the composer and Vaudeville accompanist, Lew Pollack (1895-1946), started to experiment with Orientalist musical tropes, including a prototype of the Oriental riff. In 1918, he composed a piece entitled “Buddha” for an act performed by the singing and dancing “Mellette Sisters,” Helen and Rosalie (he would go on to marry Helen in 1921).[3] Lyrics were added to the musical composition by Ed Rose (1875-1935) and the work was published in 1919 by McCarthy & Fisher, Inc. [Figure 1].

Figure 1

01 cover.jpg

  • Title: Buddha [Operatic Edition]
  • Date: 1920 (date on reverse)[4]
  • Cover Artist: Unknown
  • Composer: Lew Pollack (1895-1946)
  • Lyricist: Ed Rose (1875-1935)
  • Publisher: McCarthy & Fisher Inc. (NY)

Given the title of the composition and the accompanying lyrics, it is not surprising to see that a Buddhist figure graced the cover of the sheet music. The cover depicts a scene of religious devotion, as a woman in traditional Japanese dress is positioned kneeling with her arms outstretched praying to the Buddhist image. A pair of incense burners beside the supplicant cast fragrant smoke trails into the air, while the background is festooned with decorative Asian motifs and ornamental lanterns. The overall golden hue of the scene is punctuated by the vibrant purple garment, focusing the viewer’s eye on the woman. The unknown artist employed these visual tropes to establish a setting of exoticism, femininity, and sensuousness – all established visual cues of the Orient.   

This illustration does not represent an authentic scene of Asian Buddhist worship, but the Western idea of Oriental religiosity. The Buddhist image only mimics traditional Asian art forms. The arms are folded atop one another, unlike the traditional joining of the hands in various meditative mudra positions, and the head appears to wear a crown or tiara, more like the vogue of early twentieth century American woman’s fashion than traditional Asian headwear. Even though the artist was not attempting to draw a particular Buddhist image, it is clear that the Kamakura Daibutsu was the iconic model. The overall style is definitively East Asian, but the open, draped robe exposing the chest and simple positioning of the arms in the lap closely mirror that of the Daibutsu. In addition, the frontward-facing, symmetrical composition would have echoed the numerous photographic images of the Kamakura colossus that had circulated for decades.  

What is likely the original cover for this piece was illustrated by André De Takacs (1880-1919), an artist known for his strong graphic style [Figure 2]. It is possible that De Takacs copied this image of the Kamakura Daibutsu from figural domestic bottles sold in department stores in the United States. The scene on the cover is spartan, but the whisps of smoke from the small fires suggest religious practice and the burning of incense. By examining the details of the image, it seems as if the unknown artist of the variant cover modified the origianal illustration of De Takacs, who died suddently in 1919. 


Figure 2

  • Title: Buddha Fox Trot
  • Date: 1919 (date on reverse)
  • Cover Artist: André De Takacs (1880-1919)
  • Composer: Lew Pollack (1895-1946)
  • Lyricist: Ed Rose (1875-1935)
  • Publisher: McCarthy & Fisher Inc. (NY)

The small yellow phonograph icon on the lower left is inscribed with the words, “This Number is to be had on all Phonographic Records and Music Rolls. Ask your Dealer.” “Buddha” was recorded and published by several record companies, including the Lyraphone Company of America (as played by the Jazzarimba Orchestra; catalogue number 4204), Aeolian Company (Aeolian Dance Orchestra, 12166), Pathé Frères Phonograph Company (The Tuxedo Syncopaters, 22209; Peerless Quartet, 22334), Columbia Graphophone Company (Columbia Saxophone Sextette, A2876), and Victor Records (Sterling Trio and Peerless Quartet, 18653)[Figure 3].

Figure 3


  • Title: Buddha
  • Date: 1920
  • Vocals: Peerless Quartet (Frank Croxton , John H. Meyer, Albert Campbell , Henry Burr)
  • Composer: Lew Pollack (1895-1946)
  • Lyricist: Ed Rose (1875-1935)
  • Publisher: Victor Talking Machine Company
  • Catalogue Number: 18653-A

The full musical score and lyrics of “Buddha” can be found here. The song opens with these lyrics: “In an oriental clime, seated on a mystic shrine, Buddha dwells, and dispels hate.” The lyrics of Ed Rose do not identity Japan or Kamakura as the setting for this song, but a more mystical “Oriental” location. The rest of the song sadly describes a woman who prays to the Buddha, pleading for her lover to return to her. This is not a novel melodic narrative. It clearly refelcts a story made famous by Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Buttefly, first performed in America in 1906. Even though neither of these musical pieces directly refers to the Kamakura Daibutsu, by the early twentieth century, the Kamakura colossus was the icon of the imaginary Orient for American audiences, thus the choice of cover illustration remains fitting.


*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] This rhythmic device is discussed in Lancefield 2004: 730-35. The most popular recent use of this riff (in what might be its most iconic form) is found in Carl Douglas’ 1974 hit, Kung Fu Fighting.

[2] As coined by Robert Lancefield, “yellowvoice” refers to the ways in which Orientality was evoked through sound and music, see especially Lancefield 2004: 599-768. A rather exhaustive list of popular American songs with Chinese subjects or themes is found in Appendix A of Moon 2005.

[3] See the Vaudeville program information noted in Lancefield 2004: 604n.13. Pollack would compose another Asian themed piece, “Oh Sing-a-Loo, Whad’Ya Do with Your Que?” (1922).

[4] The song on the back cover is “Daddy, You’ve Been a Mother to Me” by Fred Fisher, with copyright date of 1920. Other prints have “While Others are Building Castles in the Air,” also by Fred Fisher, but copyrighted in 1919.


  • Lancefield, Robert Charles. 2004. “Hearing Orientality in (White) America, 1900-1930.” Ph.D. dissertation, Wesleyan Universoty.  
  • Franceschina, John. 2017. Incidental and Dance Music in the American Theatre from 1786 to 1923 [Volume 3]. Albany: BearManor Media.
  • Moon, Krystyn. 2005. Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850’s – 1920’s. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
  • Selth, Andrew. 2016. Burma, Kipling and Western Music: The Riff from Mandalay. London: Routledge.