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A Career of Japan (Review)

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For the last few decades, biography has been viewed as the red-headed stepchild of the field of history. When post-modernism was ascendant, the narratives of individuals were seen as too individually specific to have any greater relevance to historical analysis. There has always been pushback - Carlo Ginsburg’s The Cheese and the Worms about a sixteenth century Italian miller came out in 1992. This work was the vanguard of micro history which emphasized history from the bottom, a contrast to biographical ‘great man’ studies. More recently there seems to be a shift again toward reconsidering the value of biography, marked by a roundtable on biography in history that came out in the American Historical Review in June of 2009 (vol. 114 no. 3, pp 573-661).
Luke Gartlan, who has published extensively on photography in the nineteenth century, walks a middle-ground, reflecting past antagonisms and more recent acceptance in his latest work on photographer Baron Raimund von Stillfried. He examines the life of Stillfried both as an individual and as a lens into the modernization of Japan. In his view, it is the sum of one’s experiences that defines the artist. He states that his “main intention is to reconstruct the parameters of his [Stillfried’s] output and the historical consequences of his career (p.3)”. As this statement may suggest, the work is more biography than not, but it is a widely contextualized biography that elucidates not just the career of its subject but fabric of politics and international relations that surrounded him. As such, as the author himself notes, this interdisciplinary project deserves a much wider audience than that for the history of photography, the series in which it resides.
Gartlan has a multi-layered argument, weaving the life of Stillfried with discussions of his art, contemporary photographers, and larger historical events. Nevertheless, the careful explanatory markers at the beginning and the end of each chapter clearly guide the reader through the material. The book proceeds in chronological order with thematic organization to each section. The exception to the rules of chronology is the Introduction, which begins at the end, with the subject’s death. The first chapter covers Stillfried’s formative experience in mid-nineteenth-century. It describes his early education in art and his early life as an aristocrat in the Habsburg empire, and as an army officer, in Prussia and Imperial Mexico. Gartlan sees Stillfried’s actions largely as a result or rejection of this aristocratic upbringing. Stillfried arrives in Japan and the liminal space that is Yokohama in Chapter 2. According to Gartlan, these early photographs demonstrate the fine line that Stillfried walked between art, journalism and commerce. He suggests that Stillfried’s earlier landscape photographs are more journalistic, for the local “Japan hands”, while later photos exorcise any elements of modernity to appeal to the globetrotter looking for a memory of vanishing tradition.
Gartlan paints a picture of a man struggling to balance his values as an individual and an artist with the desire to turn a profit and develop a name. Chapter 3 gives an account of a fascinating incident in the history of photography in Japan, Stillfried’s unsanctioned candid photography of the Meiji Emperor. The incident affected Stillfried’s career and his own relationship with the Japanese government, but also demonstrates the impact a photograph can have. The Stillfried photograph and subsequent release of sanctioned photographs by Uchida Kuichi essentially changed the relationship between the Emperor and his people in a way that the Restoration alone had not.
The next chapter moves north, and examines the work that Stillfried did under government contract in Hokkaido as part of Japanese government colonization efforts. Photography in the context of colonization is a long-time interest for Gartlan and he thoughtfully delves in the photography of Ainu not just in photographs but how they were reproduced in other works. In fact, overall this book is carefully and thoroughly researched and presents a considered analysis. There are occasions, however where large claims are made that are not supported by other evidence. This is most evident in the luridly titled Chapter 5, “Sex and Violence in the Teahouse”. Here a single incident, for which Gartlan uncovered some interesting documentation, is made to stand for the entire industry and Stillfried’s character. It examines Stillfried’s contributions to the Vienna exposition of 1873 and his profit-making venture there, the Tea House. The politics that keep Stillfried out of the main hall, his financial pressures are all convincingly portrayed. However, the complaints of his workers, which are provided in an appendix in the original German and in translation are the sole support provided for the title. As interesting as this story is, there is no supporting evidence, if it was true or an aberration or habit, or to suggest that “Yokohama photography had a seamy underside, repressive, exploitative and even violent...” (p.144) since the incident in the chapter takes place in Vienna.
Chapter 6 expands the discussion of Stillfried as a man caught between artist and business, photographing both globe-trotting souvenirs as well as landscapes. It highlights his role as an instrumental developer of photography through the sale of supplies and mentoring of other photographers. Chapter 7 examines the shift in emphasis to portraiture and studio photographs as a facilitator in creating an image of Japan in souvenir albums, comparing Stillfried’s work to that of his apprentice Usui Shūzaburō.
Chapter 8 looks at the cut-throat world of nineteenth-century photography to untangle and examine Stillfried’s oeuvre and make a case for the appreciation of overpainted photographs, probably produced as a result of legal restrictions on Stillfried’s catalog, as art in its own right. Surprisingly, Italian photographer Aldopho Farsari (1841-1898) is mentioned only in passing in this chapter. Of course Gartlan could not cover every photographer and Farsari has been the subject of others, but Farsari was a major photographer, popular among Europeans. As Rudyard Kipling wrote, “If you buy nothing else in Japan...you must buy photographs, and the best are to be found at the house of Farsari & Co, whose reputation extends from Saigon even to America,”[1] Moreover, Farsari was directly connected to Stillfried because he bought the stock of both Felix Beato (who is discussed as both mentor and competitor) and from Stillfried. Since a good portion of Chapter 8 was devoted to elucidating the tangled web of attribution, it seems rather surprising that he is not more of a presence in the book. The Afterword briefly summarizes Stillfried’s return to Vienna and recounts the main points of the book.
For those interested in technical issues about cameras and photography there is little in the text - possibly because few resources contain specific information. Nevertheless, stepchild or not, this biography shows that this medium has value. It is an important contribution to the history of photography, japonisme, Yokohama and the Meiji period, providing a new lens into these topics. Through Raimund von Stillfried we gain texture to the stories of life in early Yokohama and the variety of relationships that foreigners had with Japan in the nineteenth-century.

Martha Chaiklin, Assistant Professor, College of Sustainability Sciences and Humanities, Dubai (Martha.Chaiklin@zu.ac.ae).

[1] Hugh Cortazzi & George Webb (eds.) 1988. Kipling’s Japan: Collected Writings. Athelone Press, p.131.

 

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