Let me say from the outset, if you’re looking for a giant book filled with old pictures of Japan, this isn’t it. It’s more. Photography in Japan: 1853-1912 is a masterwork of Japanese photography history based primarily on the original research of one man: Terry Bennett. I dove into the book expecting to simply thumb through each page, freshly taking in each photo without context. But what I found was a Ken Burns documentary on paper. This book is as much about the photographers as the photos themselves.
The way Photography in Japan is organized took me by surprise. Rather than giving precedence to the photos, Bennett focuses his attention first on the era, second on the key players in that era, and finally lets the photos follow their creators. Each chapter is a decade in Japanese history, beginning in the 1850s and ending just after 1910. The decades are laid out briefly, but with enough detail so that those brand new to Japanese history won’t be lost. After this, Bennett dives into the details of each photography adventurer. This is where his storytelling really shines. Bennett never loses his clinical, academic tone for a moment, yet you never feel bogged down or bored by it. Rather, you find yourself sitting at the feet of an intellectual, eating up a subject you (probably) never thought you could devour so ravenously.
But, of course, you came here for the photos, and they do not disappoint. The first chapter, “The 1850s”, presents us with photos from the last ten years of Edo period, bringing to life a highly romanticized and somewhat untouchable era of history. The remainder of the book chronicles the Meiji period, an era less storied, but perhaps more fascinating for its turmoil, drama, advancement, and uncertainty.
The number of photos in this collection total 350 from over 50 worldwide collections. This does not include the 50 or so illustrations and documents featured to flesh out the context surrounding the photographs. Some notable photos include the first picture ever taken of an emperor (and the story of how it was taken without his permission!), the first photos of Japanese people in the western world, and beautiful panoramic shots of Japanese villages, cities, and castles unobscured by power lines, skyscrapers, or neon signs.
As much as I simply wanted some grand scale Japanese history, I found myself sucked into the mini biographies of the intrepid photographers as they explored a new art form, some of them in an unfamiliar land. There’s nothing like being surprised by a book and Photography in Japan did just that. If you want a straight picture book, this isn’t for you. Try a cheaper book from the bargain rack at Barnes and Noble. But if you want a coffee table book that will wow your guests and make them think you’re an eccentric genius, give this one a try. It’s set up in such a way that you can read each word in order or cherry pick a few sections. Either way you’ll come away having learned a great deal, enriched by the human experience.