“Portraiture and Early Studio Photography in China and Japan”, edited by Luke Gartlan and Roberta Wue

Suzuki Tōkoku: Theophilus Alexander Singleton and anonymous Japanese man), carte de visite, June 1880. State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Suzuki Tōkoku: Theophilus Alexander Singleton and anonymous Japanese man), carte de visite, June 1880. State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

“Once you have decided to have your photograph taken,” Matsuzaki Shinji wrote in 1886, “you should clean your entire person, comb your hair, shave your face (while those with long beards should wash them thoroughly), and take care that no dirt is attached to the face or the rest of your body.” He followed this up with twenty-five more “dos and don’ts” for the customer.

It would seem, then, that having one’s portrait taken by a photographer in Japan was serious business, although Matsuzaki, who does point out that one shouldn’t get a portrait done just for amusement or on a whim, also advises sitters gently that “it is definitely best to smile a little” during the process. In spite of this, however, the copious illustrations in this book show very few people, Japanese or Chinese, smiling at all! Readers may learn all about this in Sebastian Dobson’s perceptive essay on Matsuzaki, “Guiding the Sitter”.

Portraiture and Early Studio Photography in China and Japan, Luke Gartlan, Roberta Wue (eds) (Routledge, June 2017)
Portraiture and Early Studio Photography in China and Japan, Luke Gartlan, Roberta Wue (eds) (Routledge, June 2017)

This highly-readable and wide-ranging volume, which wears its considerable scholarly expertise lightly enough for any interested reader to enjoy, handsomely-produced on decent paper by Routledge, and containing color as well as black-and-white plates, is a collection of essays which originated in a conference held at the Australian National University in 2010. It must be emphasized again that it does not read like so many of those volumes entitled “conference proceedings”, hastily cobbled-together and of varying quality. It has, seemingly, taken seven years to produce, and the care and attention which must have gone into it is commendable.

As its title states, the book is about early photographic studios and portrait-photography in particular, a field of study which, in its Asian manifestation, has hitherto not received the attention it richly deserves. Accordingly, Luke Gartlan and Roberta Wue have here assembled ten pieces by different scholars, together with an introduction by both editors, who themselves contribute one essay apiece to the collection. Each essay approaches a different aspect of the subject, although there are three parts, “Studios and Photographers”, “Sitters and Domestic Markets”, and “Citizens and Subjects”.

Within these rubrics we see how the studios operated as spaces that could be, as the back cover states, “cultural, economic and creative”, and what the relationship might have been between the sitters or customers and the people who ran the studios. What struck this reviewer was that the latter is presented as a collaboration between the subject and the photographer, although the sitter must agree with the ground rules set down by the photographer, if we are to take Matsuzaki at face value.

In any event, one didn’t just sit down in front of a camera for three seconds while the photographer nonchalantly presses a button and then says “Right you are. Next, please.” As Luke Gartlan and Roberta Wue note in their introduction, it is in the portrait that photography becomes a truly collaborative relationship; landscapes or cityscapes, on the other hand, have to be more or less dealt with as the photographer finds them, as they have little choice (outside sudden weather changes) in how they want to present themselves!


A studio is a place, which means that it is a cultural location, and in China and Japan studios were not quite the same as they were in Europe. For a start, they were not simply commercial enterprises, but meeting-places and spaces for cultural interactions to take place, as Roberta Wue’s essay “Group Encounters” interestingly shows. Her example is the American photographer Milton M Miller, a rather eccentric, if not dubious character who once shot a Chinese coolie in the leg, Wue tells us, because he wasn’t doing quite a good enough job transferring Miller’s equipment from one place to another.

Miller is unique because he is the one Western photographer featured in this book, which means that he can be presented as essentially two people, or Janus-faced if you like; there is the one who took portraits of a wide range of people from all different backgrounds, and the other, who, in the words of the editors, took “jarringly jingoisic stereoviews representing post-Opium War China for an American viewership.” Since Miller was primarily a commercial photographer, this made perfect sense from the perspective of pleasing his customers and audience. Even a commercial enterprise like Miller’s had to adapt to these needs.

Another interesting aspect of photography is that photographs are, as Susan Sontag pointed out in On Photography (1973), objects that “actively promote nostalgia”, which they achieve by “slicing out” fragments of time and stopping them in their tracks. When we look at a photograph, our experience as viewers is different from that of the people who originally occupied the space, namely the photographer and the subject. We can look at these Chinese and Japanese portraits and experience not just nostalgia (for old times, old ways) but look in on an invisible dimension, namely the time at which the image was taken. The moment itself is frozen for us, even if we can’t see it; photographs are the nearest we can get to actually having been there, and if we look carefully at them, they are more than just static representations of a world we have now lost, but almost Platonic forms of it, which will remain forever, long after their physicality has dissolved. It’s almost as if unseen elements in the photographs are present, too, which can be sensed by viewers a century and more later. Why, for example, is Theophilus Singleton presenting himself in a carte de visite wearing Japanese costume, standing next to a “real” Japanese man?

CourtesanIn Luke Gartlan’s essay we are told that Singleton’s Japanese costume represents his “insider” status in Japan, and other props also convey information about sitters, such as the boudoir portrait of the reclining Chinese courtesan or the girl on a bicycle, also a courtesan, presented in Joan Judge’s essay. Culturally, a reclining woman would be associated with that world, as would a woman astride a bicycle; “ladies” would probably not be depicted that way, and the bicycle, a western innovation, could, along with western clothes (or semi-western clothes) suggest (exotic) new horizons and cross-cultural experiences. The bicycle sets the woman apart from other, more ordinary Chinese women, and appeals directly to the imagination of the viewer.


The portraiture of women is another topic which has shown itself to be fascinating in its own right. For the most part, photographers were men in both China and Japan, which suggests that certain norms, customs and social mores would be observed and depicted. The instructions outlined for women customers in Matsuzaki’s “Dos and Don’ts” are fascinating, too; women wearing white powder should not be photographed with men, and the ladies are cautioned not to wear thick lipstick because it makes it look like their tongues are sticking out.

The essays by Karen Fraser and Joan Judge deal with two aspects of photography pertaining to women. In “From Private to Public”, Fraser gives us a view of women’s portraits from intimate private or family-orientated portraits to magazine covers and beauty-contest winners and portraits of courtesans and geishas on public billboards, all of which transgressed, in some peoples’ minds, the old conception of women, which demanded that be rarely seen nor heard. “Beauty”, as Fraser puts it, was now “on display”. There were other presentations of women, too. Luke Gartlan’s essay features two photographs of Japanese women working at everyday tasks; one carries a bucket and the other a load of firewood, a slice of “ordinary life” encapsulated in a carte de visite.

There are also essays on more esoteric aspects of early photography. Maki Fukuoka discusses portraits of actors in their costumes, an interesting twist on identities; when one spends most of one’s life being someone else, the line between who the actor is and who he plays is blurred, and all of them preferred to be photographed in costume. There is a piece by H Tiffany Lee on the art of “double” or “polypose” photography in China, where she discusses the creation in that form of a “second self” and we have an essay by Richard Kent on the sometimes lengthy inscriptions which were written on many Chinese portrait photographs, which seem to be ultimately derived from those which can be found in Chinese art. And finally, there are essays on individual photographers and studios in both China and Japan.

All the essays in this book are well-written, accessible and thoroughly-researched, as well as wide-ranging and appealing to whatever area of interest in the subject the reader might have. I have not discussed them all because to do so would be to rewrite the introduction, which gives an excellent overview of the subject and the purpose of each essay. Anyone interested in early photography should read this book, and Routledge should be commended for presenting it in such an attractive format, on decent quality paper with clearly-reproduced illustrations.

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 books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.