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How colorized photos helped introduce Japan to the world

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The best hand-colored photos of the 19th century came from Japan.

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For over 200 years, Japan isolated itself from the outside world by forbidding most foreigners from entering the country. But in 1854, a US naval expedition of warships forced Japan to open its port cities, resulting in a flood of curious travelers from Europe and North America, who established businesses there. Photography became a leading industry in newly opened Japan, to satisfy a market of curious outsiders who wanted to know what the country and its people really looked like.

Foreign photographers like Felice Beato and Baron Raimund von Stillfried established photo studios, and they employed fine artists from the Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock print industry to carefully apply watercolors to their prints. Eventually, those same apprentices dominated the market with their own photo studios.

By the 20th century, mainly due to the advent of amateur photography, the souvenir photo industry in Japan declined. But for the last half of the 19th century, photos made and carefully hand-colored in Japanese photo studios were important documents for how the world came to know Japanese culture.

Further reading:
A Good Type: Tourism and Science in Early Japanese Photographs, by David Odo
https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/node/2080

Sites of Disconnectedness: The Port City of Yokohama, Souvenir Photography, and its Audience, by Mio Wakita-Elis
https://heiup.uni-heidelberg.de/journals/index.php/transcultural/article/view/11067/5640

Photography in Japan 1853-1912, by Terry Bennett
https://www.tuttlepublishing.com/books-by-country/photography-in-japan-1853-1912-hardcover-with-jacket

Darkroom is a history and photography series that anchors each episode around a single image. Analyzing what the photo shows (or doesn't show) provides context that helps unravel a wider story. Watch previous episodes here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddiOJLuu2mo&list=PLJ8cMiYb3G5ce8J4P5j5qOEtYR94Z3DQs

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