This post is written by Catherine Roche, Guest Curator for Camera Nipponica: Photographs from Japan, 1880-1930.
Camera Nipponica is an unusual exhibition for a museum, as it features a collection of Japanese black and white portrait photography in which neither the photographers nor the sitters are known individuals. There are no bold names in the artist line, and no high ranking figures (as far as we can tell) in front of the lens. Rather, there are simply ordinary people—brides and grooms, fathers and sons, sisters and brothers—posing outdoors or in studio settings, commemorating a moment in time. Writer W.G. Sebald, who famously inserted caption-less photographs into his masterful and uncanny literary works, once said,
I’ve always collected stray photographs; there’s a great deal of memory in them.
Photographs are reservoirs of memory, and so-called “found” or vernacular photographs are partly so compelling because they resonate with memories to which we don’t have access. We are left only to speculate, on who the subjects were, what the occasion was, what they were thinking and feeling, and what has happened to them since.
Unknown photographer. Untitled portrait. 1900/1920. Gelatin developing-out paper print. Henry Art Gallery, gift of Susan Tehon
There is one photograph in the exhibition that particularly intrigues me. It depicts two girls—sisters, most likely—wearing light, summertime yukata with checkerboard patterns and bold, abstract graphics. With raised paper fans and stylized gestures, the girls seem to be performing the Bon Odori, a sort of folk dance typically performed in the heat of August to welcome the spirits of the dead. Their masklike faces are painted with thick white makeup and bold crimson lips, yet the face paint cannot conceal their distinct personalities. There is an eerie, almost Diane Arbus-like quality to this photograph that makes it memorable. What is likely simply a studio portrait of two sisters in their festival best—in one sense the most ordinary of family photos—has somehow been made strange, and thus unforgettable.
The other photograph that I keep coming back to is a portrait of a handsome group of men seated before the wooden verandah of a Buddhist temple building in the shade of an evergreen tree. The men are wearing dark kimono and white straw boaters in a mash up of Meiji Japan and the Royal Regatta at Henley-on-Thames. An oval inset includes the portrait of a member of their group who for some reason was absent on “picture day.” Was he merely late, was he sick, or had he died? It is unusual details like these that make these “stray” photographs worth collecting, and recollecting.
Please join us for Camera Nipponica: Photographs from Japan, 1880–1930 before it closes on January 5, 2014.