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Friday, April 3, 2009
Lost & Found
Cache of mislaid Edo Period photos resurface in Berlin
Special to The Japan Times
The discovery in a German archive of documents and photographs related to the Prussian mission to Japan in 1860-61 has shed new light on the early history of photography in Japan. In particular, newly uncovered letters and records help explain the mystery of why so few images from the well-equipped mission survived and provide new facts on some of the earliest photographers in Japan.
Sebastian Dobson, a London-based independent scholar, made the discoveries in the Prussian State Archives (Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussisches Kulturebesitz), a massive collection of historical material only recently consolidated in Berlin after the reunification of Germany. In a March 16 lecture in Tokyo to the Asiatic Society of Japan, Dobson presented a colorful tale of the willful suppression of an important photographic record and his attempts to restore it.
In 1860, the Kingdom of Prussia dispatched a diplomatic mission, led by Count Friedrich Albrecht zu Eulenburg, to initiate relations with Japan, China and Thailand. Unlike other missions that were sent to Japan before the Meiji Restoration by other Western powers, the Prussian mission had a specific commission to produce an artistic record of the people and places encountered. Thus, provisions for the mission included six cameras — an extraordinary number for the time — and enough glass plates and chemicals to produce over 1,200 photographs.
At one point during the Prussians' five-month stay in Edo (present-day Tokyo), there were no fewer than three photographers working alongside the two official artists. "It's surprising, given all these resources devoted to photography, that the photographs are absent from the otherwise lavish official iconography of the mission published between 1864 and 1873," Dobson told The Japan Times. "This curious omission was never explained at the time, and even today, the ultimate fate of most of the photographs remains a mystery."
What Dobson learned, through a painstaking examination of administrative records, letters and other documents, is that the photographers had an uneasy and often hostile relationship with the official artists, one of whom retaliated by ignoring the photographs when compiling the official record of the mission, and may even have discouraged their proper storage and preservation.
A major cause of the conflict was that the young photographer who set out with the mission, Carl Bismarck, was unqualified for such an important job. Bismarck was hired, Dobson discovered, only because he was the illegitimate son of Eulenburg, the head of the mission. Bismarck's shortcomings became obvious once the mission set to work in Edo, and they were the subject of several unhappy letters to Berlin.
The mission compensated by hiring as a second photographer John Wilson, an American who had recently arrived in Yokohama, and assigning a telegrapher with the mission, August Sachtler, to help as the photographers' assistant. (Sachtler later established himself as one of the first photographers in Singapore.)
Wilson was already recognized by scholars as an important figure in the history of photography in Japan, not in the least for providing photographic equipment and instruction to Shimooka Renjo, one of the most skilled and famous early Japanese photographers. But few of Wilson's photographs survive and little is known about his career.
While it was known that Wilson did some work for the Prussian mission, Dobson's research makes it clear that Wilson had a larger role than was previously understood and that he created hundreds of photographs on behalf of the Prussians. Dobson also uncovered, in the Berlin archives, 28 previously unknown photographs attributable to Wilson.
"The photographs were in an envelope attached to a letter, and quite possibly had lain undisturbed for well over a century," Dobson explained. "Unfortunately, they were mounted on and enclosed in acidic paper, which is damaging to photographs, so they have deteriorated considerably."
Even damaged, the photographs are significant because nearly all of the photographic stock from the Prussian mission has been lost. In an attempt to understand why, Dobson traced the movements of the three photographers and determined that none of them were in Prussia after the mission to safeguard their work.
Bismarck returned only to secure a new position and left the same month for China. Wilson went directly from Japan to London on another venture. And Sachtler soon made his way to Singapore.
Thus responsibility for the photographic stock fell to one of the mission's official artists, Albert Berg, who was also charged with producing the mission's official record. Berg had as little regard for the medium of photography as he did for Bismarck. He not only failed to include this part of the visual record in the official iconography, but he seems to have shipped the negatives out of easy reach.
Dobson traced the negatives to a photographer's studio in Berlin, where they appear to have been stored for some time, but after that, the trail goes cold. If the negatives survived, their whereabouts are unknown. To date, the Prussian state archives have yielded only 35 original photographs, of which eight are duplicates.
"My hope," Dobson said, "is that the Japanese government will be interested in having the damaged images restored as they are clearly important records in the nation's history."