“A Career of Japan: Baron Raimund von Stillfried and Early Yokohama Photography” by Luke Gartlan

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If you turn to page 105 in this book you will see two extraordinary figures standing and facing each other in a colored albumen print from 1872. They both have bare feet; one wears a light-blue three-quarter length robe, rather like an elegant silk dressing-gown, and the other a similar one of a darker color, with what looks a little like a skirt underneath. They have rather serious expressions on their faces, and medium-length thick, dark, dry-looking hair. They both have upturned mustaches, rather in the style affected by Kaiser Wilhelm II, although not quite as extreme, and they look as if they’ve been painted on.

The photograph is entitled Two Aino Women. The photographer was one Baron Raimund von Stillfried-Ratenicz (1839-1911), an Austrian nobleman who had somehow migrated to Japan and had set himself up in Yokohama as a professional photographer. How did someone like this progress from a conventional upbringing in a relatively obscure Bohemian town to “the most important foreign-born photographer” in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Japan was “opening up” to the West? And how did he become, after his initial fame, so little-known and little-studied by scholars in our own time?

A Career of Japan: Baron Raimund von Stillfried and Early Yokohama Photography, Luke Gartlan (Brill, December 2015)
A Career of Japan: Baron Raimund von Stillfried and Early Yokohama Photography, Luke Gartlan (Brill, December 2015)

The answer to these and many other questions may be found in this beautifully-produced, lavishly-illustrated book by Luke Gartlan, a lecturer at the School of Art History, St. Andrews University, Scotland, and editor of the journal History of Photography. The eminent Dutch publishing-house of Brill must be commended for the look and feel of this book, printed on high-quality glossy paper and its superbly-reproduced photographs, many of which are colored, like the one described above. The book is the first volume in a projected series entitled Photography in Asia, and if this one is anything to go by, this reviewer is certainly looking forward to further volumes. Beautiful books are hard to find these days, and Brill should be congratulated for producing this one.

Baron von Stillfried would have been very proud, one suspects, if he could have seen this book, and equally gratified if he had read Gartlan’s text. Baron von Stillfried comes vividly to life, and not just as a photographer of Japan, because his life turns out to be adventurous, controversial at times, and always unpredictably interesting.

 

The young Stillfried spent some time training for a naval career at the Imperial Marine Academy in Trieste, at which he learned to paint landscapes as well as being taught sailing skills; it was considered essential for officers to be able to sketch, at least as far as their natural skills allowed them, what they saw in foreign lands. Stillfried became an extremely accomplished draughtsman and water-colorist, and some of his paintings, often done from his own photographs, are reproduced in this book.

In 1863, he enlisted as a cabin-boy on a German ship which took him to Peru, where he appears to have stayed for a while before visiting Shanghai and Hong Kong, finally arriving for the first time in Japan, where he resided for eighteen months in Nagasaki. In 1865 we find him suddenly embarking for Mexico, where he volunteered in the army of the ill-fated Hapsburg ruler of Mexico, the emperor Maximilian, brother of the Austrian emperor Franz Josef. After the defeat and subsequent execution of Maxmilian by firing-squad in 1867, Stillfried went back home for a short time, but he had been bitten by the Japan bug, and in 1868 he could be found living in Yokohama, having failed to find the employment in Austria that he wanted.

The tragic events in Mexico, however, had left a profound sadness in Stillfried’s life, and the cavalier treatment meted out to Austrian veterans of the Mexican campaigns made him feel unappreciated. As Gartlan states, “Stillfried’s subsequent expatriate life therefore reflected his sense of personal alienation from his country of origin.”

In the end, it was Japan which made Stillfried’s reputation, not Mexico, although the trauma of Maxmilian’s tragedy remained with him throughout his life, and the book includes a photograph taken in 1907 at a reunion of survivors who had volunteered in the imperial forces forty years later. They are old now, and many of them, including Stillfried himself, look rather sad and care-worn.

Stillfried, who never shirked hard work, re-invented himself in Japan, and became, then and now, a major force for promulgating the image of Japan in the rest of the world, particularly in Central Europe, from where, of course, he originated. He was not “just” a photographer, but a powerful intermediary between east and west. For people who couldn’t travel, Stillfried’s photographs were Japan, and they also represented, of course, what he himself believed was the essence of the country he knew and loved.

As a photographer working on the spot in Japan, Stillfried was also a necessary part of the expatriate culture there, and his contacts ranged over the whole gamut of nationalities. What’s more, Stillfried didn’t just work with foreigners. He may not have been the first European photographer to work with Japanese colleagues, but he was far and away the most influential, and he certainly influenced the adoption of photography into all the strata of Japanese society and culture.

 

Gartlan covers all the major aspects of Stillfried’s career. There are chapters on his Austrian and Mexican years, his first visit to Japan, his “scandalous” photographs of the emperor Meiji, his work with the Ainu, photography and the culture of the teahouse, the globalization of photography and a discussion on how Stillfried’s work constructed Japan for its viewers. He concludes with “The Trials of Stillfried” and an Afterword, as well as four appendices, a glossary, notes, and full bibliography. I list these to demonstrate the meticulous and thorough treatment which Gartlan devotes to Stillfried, and which makes up for the inexplicable neglect that his work and career suffered in the decades following his death.

In addition to his impeccable research, Gartlan engages the reader with the breadth of his scholarship and the fact that he wears it lightly enough to make this book a thoroughly enjoyable read, even for someone like myself, who is not an expert on the technicalities of photography. Gartlan is no narrow technical scholar of the kind that is all-too frequent in these days of academic professionalism; he ranges deeply into the impact that Stillfried’s work had on European conceptions of Japan, the important effect that his photographs of the emperor had on a population where many people believed the emperor was divine and had never actually seen him in person (for me, that was the most fascinating chapter in the book), and the importance of his landscape photographs, some of which were stunning, and Gartlan thoughtfully includes illustrations of some of Stillfried’s water-colors for comparison. I was surprised also to learn that there was a great deal of competition amongst photographers just in Yokohama itself, and that Stillfried became embroiled in spats with his own embassy, not to mention with Japanese bureaucrats. He managed, in the end, to establish himself as the most sought-after photographer in Yokohama, a man whose studio was the place to go when one needed to be immortalised.

I’ve already said something about the production of this book; Brill has done a great service to both the author and his subject. The book is a pleasure to hold, to look at, and to read. Gartlan has rescued a great artist from comparative oblivion, and I only wish that I could do the technical aspects of this book the justice they deserve. I cannot recommend it more highly, both for the visual treats and the intellectual delights in the discussion.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His latest book is an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012).