Early photos offer glimpse of desegregated classes
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    Auction Finds

    Hand-colored photos of early Japanese villagers

    The stack of black and white photographs with hints of color were propped against a table leg behind a lackluster print of a little girl and a garden. I instantly suspected that some auction-goer had secretly placed them in this sheltered spot.

    No way the auction house would have hidden such a wonderful grouping of vintage hand-colored Japanese photos that would easily bring in the big bucks. So someone had tried to make sure they remained out of sight until they came up for bids, catching the rest of us off-guard.

    The photos were among scores of original prints, reproductions, paintings, gilt frames, vintage prints, furniture and framing equipment in a long room the shape of a football field, on a U-shaped balcony and inside a maze of smaller rooms. Every time I turned a corner, I was faced with more artwork on tables, lying against walls or tucked in corners.

    Japanese hand colored photos

    Japanese women in front of what looks like a tea house or housing.

    The building was the former warehouse of a venerable old art gallery that had sold it and was now getting rid of the contents, the auctioneer said. I’m sure the gallery had already taken the good stuff away. Left behind, though, was an eclectic collection of artwork still secure and wrapped in plastic, and in good condition.

    As the auctioneer sold utilitarian framing equipment near the wide front entrance to the building, I decided to do a little more digging among the offerings. There was so much stuff that I was afraid that I’d missed something the first time around – especially some African American art buried among the hoard.

    That’s when I stumbled onto the dozen or so photos. I was hyped. I placed them on a table to view them individually, and saw vintage photos of Japanese villages, people and lush landscapes with touches of color.


    Japanese hand colored photos

    A woman dresses up in front of a mirror.

    They were obviously historical and on the surface, gave a peek into the culture of the country.

    A merchant sitting in his covered stall, with rickshaws parked outside.

    A woman making herself up in front of a mirror.

    A group of women gathered outside what may have been a tea house or housing.

    A group of fishermen on the shore with their boats.

    As I stood there admiring the photos, a male auction-goer walked up, surprised that he had overlooked them. I didn’t see those, he said. I mentioned that they were hiding behind some prints. They’re chromolithographs, he said. No, they’re photos, I said, and he agreed, looking at them closer. Later the auctioneer sold them as such.

    I was familiar with chromolithographs, which looked more like paintings than photos.

    These were likely done in the late 19th century when coloring was being applied extensively to photos. The process itself got started in Europe in the 1840s, but was elevated into an art form in Japan by Europeans new to the country and skilled artists who had originally created Japanese woodblock prints. These albumen photos showed life in a country that had been closed to outsiders until the mid-1800s, and were sold to Western tourists or visitors through catalogs or at studios. Most of the studios were in Yokohama, the main entry point to the island.

    Japanese hand colored photos

    A Japanese village with a mountain (Mount Fuji?) as a backdrop,

    There is some question about who actually brought hand-coloring to Japan, but photographer Felice Beato and watercolor artist Charles Wirgman are credited with popularizing it during the latter half of the 19th century.

    Beato combined what he’d learned about Japanese colored woodblocks with the colored photography of Europe and with Wirgman began coloring photos of villagers and landscapes. The photos were a hit with Japanese people and as souvenirs for Western tourists.

    One of the earliest Japanese colorists was said to be Yokoyama Matsusaburo, who created a technique called shashin abura-e or “photographic oil paintings.” Another colorist was Italian photographer Adolfo Farsari, who had a studio in Yokohama. Baron von Raimund Stillfried-Rathenitz, Hermann Andersen and photographer Kusakabe Kimbei produced photos of the daily life of Japanese that were also sold as souvenirs.

    Japanese hand colored photos

    Fishermen with their boats.

    Kimbei worked in Stillfried and Andersen’s studio until 1885 when he opened his own in Yokohama, where he worked until 1912. His works included portraits, daily life and other Japanese scenes. He did not just capture people acting naturally; he often staged his photos using props, sets, costumes and “actors, according to one account.

    Early on, hand-coloring was a tedious process, and colorists could only do two to three photos a day. Soon, studios hired more colorists, with each painting a particular part (faces, clothing, etc.) of the photograph and passing it on to the next person. Because of the types of prints and pigments used (along with exposure to the elements), these 100-year-old photos are subject to fading and discoloration.

    Most of the photos are not signed, and the colorists remain anonymous and long-forgotten. Here are photos by T. Enami (or Nobukuni Enami), one of which shows assistants in his Yokohama studio coloring some black and whites circa 1895-1897.

    Japanese hand colored photos

    A merchant in his shop.

    Some of the photos at auction had lettering on them that I first assumed were the photographers’ names, but I learned that the faint notations were perhaps descriptions and locations – Goten and the number 95 (was that the year?), Yumoto and what looked like Tomioka.

    After deciding to bid on them, I placed them on a table with artwork that others had pulled from stacks for separate bids. Wanting to make sure that they would be sold as a group, I asked an auction associate about them. He was surprised to learn that they had been placed on the floor behind some other artwork.

    They initially had on the top of a table, he said. So, my hunch was right; someone had tried to hide them.

    hand colored photos

    A river landscape with bridge.

    When they came up for auction, I dipped my toe into the bidding but didn’t stay long because it was obvious that some folks wanted them badly. Another auction-goer indicated that they were not worth the price.

    I watched as several bidders went at it past $100, including an Asian woman who wanted them even more than the rest of us. I understood, because I sometimes hang in there for works that pertain to African Americans. And she got them.

    Checking later, I understood why. Hand-colored photos attributed to well-known colorists apparently do quite well at auction: At a Swann Auction Galleries sale last year, eight circa 1870 photos by Beato sold for $5,500, while 50 circa 1887 by Kimbei sold for $3,400. At Christie’s last year, a lot of 100 hand-colored albumen prints by Kimbei sold for nearly $26,000.

    hand colored photos

    A Japanese village and its people.


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