Empire of Color (March 20, 2024 presentation review)

Presentation: Japanese Empire of  Colour

Toronto. Our March 20th session via ZOOM was terrific! Kjeld Duits gave an excellent and detailed  talk last Wednesday. Besides his informative slides, his presentation gave us many facts about Japanese photography and history, a few of which I have noted here.

ARCHITECTURE. Unlike European and North American cities, Japanese cities are all modern buildings – no historical buildings. The Japanese do not seem to value historic  architecture. Only when Kjeld saw some old photographs, did he realize there was a record and images of ancient Japan before Westernization. He has about 10,000 photos and postcards to date in his own collection – many of which are digitized. And he has access to some additional 77,000 items through other collectors.

PRINTS. The focus of his talk and slides tonight was on the hand coloured black and white prints and the unique way this ‘colourization’ was once performed in Japan. The vast majority of prints for domestic consumption were the usual black and white photos. A limited selection of prints were copied many times and colourized exclusively for export especially via the tourist trade.

HISTORY. The Dutch had some initial access to Japan. The country was finally opened to all Western civilizations in 1859 – some 20 years after the momentous announcement by Daguerre in France. The Dutch gained access a bit before 1859 and introduced some photography to the island country – some books, instructions, and a handful of cameras.  A Japanese photographer created the first Daguerreotype image taken in Japan about 1858. In the early days of Western access, even window glass had to be imported at great expense. But once they gained full access, the Japanese economy flourished and their  industry raced to catch up.

COLOURIZATION. Traditionally, Japanese prints carried no identification as to the photographer or studio which created the photograph. Japan has a unique colourization process – only part of a print is colourized, but in great detail and with patience and precision. A single print could take hours or possibly days to colour.

The individual who colourized the print was rarely identified, even by the studio which produced the copies. The colourist used many different brushes, and many different pots of dyes, plus water to make the colours translucent (compared to European hand coloured prints which were often produced quickly with little translucency or attention to detail). Japanese colourization concentrated in many cases only on the clothing – often showing their vibrant colours. In some of the examples Kjeld displayed in his slides, there was incredible attention to shading and details in what was a tiny portion of  a print.

SPEEDING THINGS UP. In time a ‘production line’ was arranged for colourizing the photos with colourists specializing in one type of object – trees, sky, clothing, accessories, etc. An individual print was passed from one colourist to the next as each part of a print was coloured. The colourization was once again done by unnamed expert artists.

AUTHENTICITY. While the colours and shades were authentic to an era, no attempt was made to match the colours of the original scene, or even match the colours from one print to the next. In fact, each print was considered a unique piece of artwork in itself.

Our thanks to Celio for arranging this evening and to Kjeld Duits for enlightening us with his beautiful slides and detailed presentation. Well Done!

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