During my spring 2016 internship at The ROM, I came across an unusual metallic photograph. It is inset on the lacquer cover of a Meiji Era album of 1890s souvenir photographs. I did not know it then, but I was looking at a rare, silver example of Japan’s unique contribution to 19th Century photography. Only after extensive historical research, and a detailed physical analysis of the image was I able to identify it as one of Mizuno Henbei’s silver powder on lacquer works of art.
In May of 2016 I began my internship at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, as partial fulfillment of my Film and Photographic Preservation and Collections Management Masters degree program at Ryerson University in that city. Coming from a contemporary art photography background, I was thoroughly fascinated studying the earliest histories of photography, as well as the hands-on experience gained making photographs with 19th and 20th centuries photographic processes. I was particularly impressed by the inventiveness of 19th century photographers and the processes they developed. I had also lived in Japan for many years, soaking up all I could learn of its history and culture. I was a regular at antiques swap meets and history museums, becoming a bit familiar with old hand-coloured collotypes depicting famous landmarks and traditionally dressed people of old.
Fig. 1, Front cover of Yokohama souvenir photographs album found in The Royal Ontario Museum’s Bishop White Committee Library of East Asia, accession number 31761085032324
At the museum, the first object I was tasked with digitizing was a personal scrapbook/album by Margaret MacLean, a Canadian author who lived in Yokohama between 1904 and 1908. While it was composed primarily of magazine and newspaper clippings, picture postcards, collodion and gelatine silver prints, over 120 hand-coloured albumen silver prints make up a large portion of the images. My goal was to catalog these photographs, and to do that, I needed all possible information about their authorship. At this point I was still unfamiliar with the peculiarities of Japanese photo history, or the defining work of the many scholars of 19th century Japanese photography. What I had to start with was with a website I had come across while searching for Meiji-era photographs. I had a couple of names by western photographers that had popped up during my classroom coursework, Felice Beato and Adolfo Farsari.
I began to compare the images in the MacLean scrapbook to those by Beato and Farsari yielded by image search engines, in the naive hope of some quick identification. I was unaware of the journey I was embarking on and the schooling I was about to receive. None of the images matched. Not one. And yet, they all were familiar to each other. There were samurai sitting in dignified poses, women wearing winter cowlings, men powering jinrikishas. There were merchants at shop entrances, women sorting tea leaves, farmers planting rice paddies, monks in street processions. I had seen all these images before, but then, I hadn't really seen any of the ones in front of me at all. I was looking at the product of a class of images, what Felice Beato is said to have termed Native Types, or pictures of people performing their occupations or going about their daily routines.
Not satisfied with the results of my online search, I had to kick things up into a higher gear. I asked permission to compare the pictures to other original Japanese albums from the 1890s in the collection. These valuable primary sources were already in my pipeline for digitization. They had all been recently found tucked away in the rare books collection, but hadn’t been processed yet. I began to compare the images between them and very quickly noted differences in condition, image permanence, and colouring techniques. These souvenir photo albums were of a quality far superior to any other such albums I had seen. The hand-coloured images are so refined that they made quite an impression on me.
One of these albums caught my eye right away. It has a grey, metallic photograph inset on the lustrous, patterned red lacquer front cover. Its leafs host delicately tipped-in, hand-coloured albumen silver photographs, measuring about 8 x 10 inches. They capture famous landmarks, landscapes or staged scenes of Japanese life. Every page's margins are graced with beautifully hand-painted illustrations and motifs. None of the other Meiji photo albums in the collection have such detailed illustrations. Finding this album (Yokohama souvenir album, Royal Ontario Museum Libraries accession no. 31761085032324) so early in my museum internship was unexpected. That grey metallic picture entranced me. I had not seen anything like it at school, and I was unsure of what photo process it was. I had to investigate!
This article is a blog adaptation of "The Discovery and Identification of a Silver Mizunotype" originally published in the Photographic Collectors Club of Great Britain's journal Photographica World, No. 157, December 2017. I have broken up the original article into four parts, and updated some information to reflect new findings since publication. My research into the mizunotype, its context, materiality and preservation continues and it has led me to other mizunotypes right here in Toronto. I am learning so much about this lacquer based photographic object, that I can't wait to share with you in a future article.
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