Constructing the image of Japan

The Meiji era in Japan (1868-1912) was a period of modernisation and restoration. Emperor Meiji restructured Japan’s whole socio-political system to strike back against European imperialism. As part of the modernisation, he imported Western technologies, among them photography. Thereby, he triggered the advent of Japan’s photo industry. Around 250 pictures of that era are now on display at Berlin’s museum for photography. Pale Pink and Light Blue: Japanese Photography from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) is on display until January 2016.

Picture courtesy of Museum of Photography, Berlin Picture courtesy of Museum of Photography, Berlin

The early Japanese photographers mixed woodblock printing traditions with European art conventions. They captured beautiful landscapes, romantic sceneries and representative portraits on coloured albumin paper. The result are soft, pastel, silky-matte pictures with a superb mix of pictorial and documentary quality. We see images of men and women, garments, arts and crafts, rituals and religion – cornerstones of what one might call culture. But, as culture is an ever-changing idea, the archive looks suspiciously uniform. The explanation is in the exhibition texts: the Western gaze. Whatever the gaze choses to look at condemns everything outside the frame to invisibility. And as such the exhibition is an example of how a cultural image is constructed. And of how little objectivity there really lies in pictures taken.Picture courtesy of Museum of Photography, Berlin.

Picture courtesy of Museum of Photography, Berlin. Picture courtesy of Museum of Photography, Berlin.

Because, most photographies belong to one of two categories: souvenirs of European tourists; or posed sceneries produced for export. The Japanese merchants knew the Western tastes, perceptions and feelings well. Hence, they addressed them to increase business. The result is a collection of stereotypes: cherry blossoms and Mount Fuji, samurai and sumo fighters, Geishas and Nō masks. Daily scenes are absent or the people in them reduced to decorations in landscapes. There was a certain imagery of Japan that had prevailed in Europe for more than 300 years. Even photography with its documentary quality could not change the choice of motives.

Picture courtesy of Museum of Photography, Berlin

Looking at these pictures, one might think every Japanese woman is a Geisha and that there is no urban life. The so-called “souvenir photography” does neither show the modernisation of Japan nor individuality. The choice of motives is what makes the European input, i.e. the exotification of the Other. It became self-exotification as Japanese photographers, driven by financial needs, reproduced what sold best. Thus, they reinforced that perception in their commercialised image production.

As wisdom has it, the problem with clichés is not that they are incorrect; but, that they are incomplete. So, if you want to know the story of what’s in front of the camera, your are advised to read all text tables and do some more research at home. Otherwise, it is still a collection of stunningly beautiful photography. But, your gaze might not pierce into the world behind the camera.

Museum of Photography, Berlin
September 4, 2015 – January 10, 2016
Jebensstraße 2, Bahnhof Zoo

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