Visual Literacy of Buddhism in America

[Updated: January 2019]

What do you imagine the Buddha to have 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.

This page will be a repository where I keep some of my research notes on popular American material and visual culture and print ephemera containg Buddhist figures. All items (except otherwise noted) are part of my personal collection and archive, and as such represent my uneven collecting habits and particular research interests. I will update this page as my time and motivation allows. _/|\_

History of this Project: My scholarship has regularly returned to questions regarding religion and cross-cultural transmission. Trained as a medieval Sinologist (someone who studies China) with a focus on Buddhism, I was interested in how the early Chinese understood the foreign Indian tradition of Buddhism as it entered their sphere of knowledge. Early depictions of Chinese Buddhist imagery were fascinating hybrids of Chinese and non-Chinese ideas and acted as material metaphors for a similar process of intercultural assimilation of many aspects of Buddhist doctrine. As is a difficulty with all historical research, I imagined all of the more ephemeral – and perhaps weirder – expressions of Buddhist imagery that, unfortunetely for us, did not stand the test of time.

I then realized this hybrization process was ongoing currently in the United States, and had been for many decades.  While classical institutions of learning, like libraries and museums, would be repositories of rare or valuable items, I became interested in what might be called the more “vernacualr,” ephemeral hybrid expressions of modern, non- Asian Buddhist imagery. Thus, I started to collect items as a pseudo-intellectual hobby. In a sense, I was doing what I wish someone did in China millennia ago when Buddhism was first introduced! This habit soon turned into a conference paper entitled “A Buddhist Veneer on American Pop Culture,” where I argued for the value of archiving and analyzing these early, and sometime odd, specimens of vernacular Buddhist imagery in America.

As my collection grew, I started to organize and patterns started to appear. I also wanted to start sharing some of my ideas (this was not my main area of research!) and decided to think about an online archive. This formal archive has yet to materialize, but I wanted to share my initial thoughts on selected items that I had already researched. Along the way, I’ve decided to also publish my working notes on the dating of old photographs and identifying old postcards. This, in a nutshell, is the origin of my blog posts on the Visual Literacy of Buddhism. The entries in this series thus far are catalogued below.

 

Albumen Prints

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

 

 

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  • Farsari’s Dai Butsu
  • 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

 

 

 

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  • Farsari’s Dai Butsu
  • 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

 

Postcards

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  • Kimbei’s Undivided Back Postcard
  • Title/Caption: NA
  • Year: 1900-1907 (postally unused)
  • Photographer: Kusakabe Kimbei 日下部金兵衛 (1841-1934)
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Union Postale Universelle. CARTE POSTALE, 萬國郵便聯合端書

 

 

 

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  • Kōzaburō’s Undivided Back Postcard
  • Title/Caption: NA
  • Year: 1900-1907 (postally unused)
  • Photographer: Tamamura Kōzaburō 玉村康三郎 (1856-1923?)[?]
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Union Postale Universelle. CARTE POSTALE, 萬國郵便聯合端書

 

 

 

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  • Ueda’s Hand-Colored “Cerulean-Umber” Postcards
  • Title/Caption: Daibutsu, Kamakura. 佛大倉鎌
  • Year: c. 1907 [postally used 1910]
  • Publisher: Ueda Photographic Prints Corp. 上田写真版合資会社
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Postkarte [Type 1], 郵便はかき

 

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  • Ueda’s Hand-Colored “Cerulean-Umber” Postcards
  • Title/Caption: Daibutsu, Kamakura. 佛大倉鎌
  • Year: c. 1907 [postally unused]
  • Publisher: Ueda Photographic Prints Corp. 上田写真版合資会社
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Postkarte [Type 1], 郵便はかき

 

 

 

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  • Ueda’s Daibutsu and Dog Postcard
  • Title/Caption: Daibutsu, Kamakura. 佛大倉鎌
  • Year: c. 1907 [postally unused]
  • Publisher: Ueda Photographic Prints Corp. 上田写真版合資会社
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Postkarte [Type 1], 郵便はかき

 

 

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  • Ueda’s Unfussy Daibutsu Postcard
  • Title/Caption: Daibutsu, Kamakura. 佛大倉鎌
  • Year: c. 1907 [postally unused]
  • Publisher: Ueda Photographic Prints Corp. 上田写真版合資会社
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Carte Postale [Type 2], 郵便はかき

 

 

 

Stereoviews

IMG_E5813

  • Metcalf & Bennet’s “A Summer In Japan”
  • Title/Caption: Bronze Image of Buddha at Kammakura [sic]
  • Year: 1877
  • Photographer: William Henry Metcalf (1821-1892)
  • Publisher: Henry Hamilton Bennett (1843–1908), “A Summer in Japan” (#346)
  • Medium: albumen print, mounted on yellow-orange card
  • Dimensions: 7 in x 3.5 in

 

IMG_E5822

  • Strohmeyer’s “Faithful at the Shrine of the Daibutsu”
  • Title/Caption: The Faithful at the Shrine of Dai Butsu, Japan’s Greatest Idol, Kamakura, Japan
  • Year: 1896
  • Photographer: Henry A. Strohmeyer (1858-1943)
  • Publisher: Strohmeyer & Wyman, distributed by Underwood & Underwood (out of a set of 72 views)
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on curved buff/tan-colored card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

 

IMG_E5858

  • Keystone’s “Colossal Bronze Statue of Buddha”
  • 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

 

IMG_E5827

  • Ponting & Graves’ “Largest Idol in the East”
  • 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

 

IMG_E5835

  • Ponting and the Underwoods’ “Majestic Calm” of the Kamakura Daibutsu
  • 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

 

IMG_E5842

  • Ponting and White’s “Sacred Daibitsu”
  • Title/Caption: 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

 

IMG_E5866

 

  • Enami’s Dazzling Bronze Buddha
  • 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

 

IMG_E5849

  • Keystone’s Tour of the World
  • 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

IMG_5840

  • Underwood & Underwood’s Tourist Excursion
  • 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

 

IMG_5830

  • Graves’ “Stereoscopic Gem”
  • 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

 

Sheet Music

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