Adolfo Farsari – The Man Who Shot Japan

4 September 2014

In the 1880s at a time when most Europeans were denied access to the Japanese interior an Italian photographer managed to capture many images of Old Japan. These were then beautifully and realistically hand painted and serve as a remarkable record of a world long since disappeared.


Although the majority of Farsari’s pictures of people are posed, they give us a valuable insight in to the costumes and manners of late Victorian era Japan.  Based in Yokohama, Farsari had had a rather convoluted journey to end up where he did.  He began his career as a military man and served for a while in the Union Army in the American Civil War.  Perhaps this image of Japanese warriors reflected his interest in the military but they are certainly resplendent in their heavy looking armor. It would be for his portraits that he would be particularly remembered, but his landscapes too are quite remarkable, capturing as they do a world now lost to us.

Farsari was very much a commercial photographer and his compositions were designed to be sold mostly to foreign visitors to Japan.  His landscapes often picture what we might call a slightly enhanced version – even romanticized – of Japan but were very highly regarded at the time.  Something of a libertarian, Farsari had joined the American Civil War as he was a fervent abolitionist and his photographs reflect his ideas of equality – women are portrayed as often as men and not in subservient positions.  For many people who had never been to Japan his images would shape their ideas of the country – and to some degree they would also contribute to the ways in which the Japanese regarded themselves.

It is a strange thought, looking at the modern looking faces of these Japanese women to take in the fact that they have all been dead for the greater part of a century at least – the photograph still seems incredibly new and fresh somehow.  Although Farsari had arrived in Japan in the 1870s and had traded photographs (among many other things) it was not until the 1860s that he taught himself photography, seeing it as a lucrative living for reasons we will outline later.  In 1885 he went in to partnership with Tamamura Kozaburō.  Together they acquired an already existing studio, the Japan Photographic Association.  Within a few years the two had fallen out and were in competition with each other.  Not for long.

Farsi did not have the high shutter speeds that we enjoy today and occasionally some images are a little blurred.  It cannot be understated just how difficult it would have been to capture this scene at the time.  Due to the photographic techniques of the day these subjects would have had to remain still for four or five seconds in order for the picture to be captured without blurring.  As you can see the attempt was not one hundred percent successful as there was movement during the exposure time.  However, as a piece of social history this photograph is invaluable.  No one is sure how long the partnership between Farsari and Kozaburō lasted but it was not long.  By 1886 Farsari and Tong Cheong (a Chinese photographer) were the only commercial non Japanese photographers working in the country.  By 1887 Farsari was on his own.

So it was that Farsari became the last foreign photographer of note in Japan at the time.  Over the years his images would become widely available through various media  - mostly books, periodicals and travel guides.  His work, though, would transpose photography. One of his most famous shots, of a Japanese high class woman being transported to an unknown destination would be reproduced the world over as a china figurine and prints, the clothing and the expressions of the subjects intact.  One can only guess as to whether they may have changed their expressions had they known how widespread and well known their anonymous faces would become.

His pictures would become the inspiration for artists too.  Take for example the view above of Shijo-dori, Kyoto.  This 1886 picture would become the inspiration for the French painter Louis-Jules Dumoulin who would in 1888 add a few touches of his own and come up with ‘Carp Banners in Kyoto’.

His reputation at the time was not quite unrivalled.  There were also setbacks,  In 1886 a mysterious fire destroyed all of his negatives.  A lesser man may have give up there and then.  Farsari on the other hand embarked on a half year tour of Japan and took enough photographs on his journey to replenish his stock and reopen his studio.  By the time he left Japan in 1890 this would number over a thousand.

Why is Farsari so special?  As has already been pointed out, he wasn’t exactly alone in terms of foreign photographers in Japan – and the home grown variety numbered many.  What makes him still stand out today is the high technical standards (for the time) that he demanded from his own work.  In fact his techniques had a large influence on the development of photography as an art form in Japan, not bad for someone who taught himself in order to make a living.  Perhaps that is another reason why he is still remembered so well – that need to make a living for himself combined with his natural and great entrepreneurial skills ensured that his photographs were disseminated and his name and reputation grew concurrently.

Although incredibly popular in his day, the later part of the twentieth century saw a lot of critics of Farsari’s work point the finger of accusation at his photographs.  They maintained that inconsistency of quality for the sake of production in large quantities was evident and his work was dismissed by some as something akin to the tourist kitsch we can buy today.  However, that has since been reappraised and the historic and artistic significance of his work has been recognized again.  Certainly by the amount of museums that contain collections of his work his reputation is probably now safe.

Certainly, you only have to glance at a picture like ‘The Officer’s Daughter’ above to see that the composition is exquisite.  Furthermore Farsari employed excellent artists and used the highest quality paints and paper that he could get his hands on.  The results are stunning.

Although his photographs could be purchased individually, Farsari realized that the real money was to be made by developing the trade in albums.  So, his studio produced the sepia monochrome prints that were then hand-colored by local artists.  These would then be mounted on hand decorated album leaves.  The leaves were ultimately bound between either lacquer boards or silk brocade – and sold at a high price to interested collectors.

He sold a lot too, particularly to European and American visitors to Japan and to those foreigners residing there who wanted to take a visual memento away with them. They were expensive, of course, but that ensured a certain clientele and the likes of Rudyard Kipling waxed lyrical about his work.  By 1889 Farsari wished to return home to Italy and become Italian again (he had relinquished his nationality when he went to the US to fight in the Civil War).  As you might expect from such a character, in order to try and facilitate his re-entry to the country of his birth he presented a deluxe album to the King of Italy in 1889.

His request did not fall on deaf ears and he returned (with his daughter Kiku, the result of a relationship between him and a Japanese woman).  Although he returned home it is not clear, however, if he was granted his citizenship again.  However, it was in the city of his birth, Vicenza, that he died in 1898.

His studio continued in Japan despite his absence.  His studio manager, Tonokura Tsunetarō, took over the business.  The business became fully Japanese in 1907 and records indicate that it was in business till at least 1917.  It is unsure when it ceased to be, as the city of Yokohama, where it was based, was mostly destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923.  However, Farsari’s photographs remain a testament to his life’s work and he will be always known as the man who shot Old Japan.



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