Gaze at Hand-Colored Photos of 19th Century Japan



Photography was introduced into Japan a few decades after its invention in Europe, and within a few years of the country’s re-opening to the West following Commodore Matthew Perry's arrival in Tokyo Bay in 1853. Recently, the New York Public Library digitized an album of photographs showing Japanese scenes just a few decades after Perry’s efforts.

The black-and-white images, many of them hand-colored, depict temples, houses, people, waterfalls, forests, and mountains, as well as transportation, agriculture, and entertainments such as sumo wrestling. Though the album’s provenance isn’t entirely clear, it’s part of a host of 19th century Japanese photographs the library currently cares for, many of which have also been hand-decorated with color.

According to the NYPL, some of the images in the album may have been created by the early Japanese photographer Kusakabe Kimbei, who ran a photo studio in Yokohama starting in 1881. Kimbei was a pupil of the noted early photographer of Asia Felice Beato, who set up a photo studio in Yokohama in 1863. (You can browse a wonderful interactive album of photos Beato took in Japan in the 1860s on the Getty Museum’s website.) 

And if you’re hungry for more recently digitized Japanese content from the NYPL, check out the beautiful woodcut-illustrated 1920s books of Japanese fairytales collected by the writer and translator Lafcadio Hearn. Born just a few years before Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay, Hearn was one of the first to bring Japanese culture and writings to the West. 

"Japanese Women: Cooking, Accomplishments (Music and Dance), Riding Rickshaw, Nursing, and Washing." (Click to enlarge.)

"Sumo Wrestler."  (Click to enlarge.)

"Massage, Peddlars, and a Store." (Click to enlarge.)

"Views - A Row of Houses, an Island, Harbor and Mt. Fuji."  (Click to enlarge.)

"Rickshaws and Palanquins." (Click to enlarge.)

All photos courtesy the New York Public Library.