Dutch Doctors taught the Japanese about photography




3 minutes reading

Not many people know much about the history of trade between Japan and The Netherlands, and fewer still know that it was the Dutch who brought photography to Japan. Which brings an irony to the fact that many Dutch people walk around nowadays with their Canon, Nikon, Olympus or Sony on their bellies. The cliché about Japan has been confirmed yet again: copying a new product, but making it better then the original. The Japanese word for photography, shashin, which means as much as ‘to copy the truth’, neatly underlines this point. 

In 1939 French artist and chemist J.M. Daguerre developed the daguerreotype, one of the earliest photographs. One year later, a Dutch merchant ship brought the first examples to Nagasaki. The Japanese watchmaker Shunnojo Tsunetari Ueno was intrigued by this technique of producingfactual images. He decided to order the materials he needed to produce the daguerreotypes from Europe, which arrived by ship at the docks of Dejima in 1848. In the 1850s it was mainly the feudal elite,samurai and doctors who could afford to take photographs using the expensive daguerreo technique. But the Englishman Frederick Scott Archer, invented a cheaper method of photography called the collodion process in 1850, and the Dutch also shipped the materials for this process to Japan. Witha little bit of help from China, which was the only country at the time who had the permission of the Shogun government to trade with Japan.

Development education
In the mid 1800s the island of Dejima, off the coast of Japan, was the only place where the Japanese and foreigners could meet freely. Other parts of the country were closed off, out of fear of foreign influences that could harm the Shogun culture. It was in Dejima that many new things were introduced to Japan: badminton, clover, coffee and beer. It was in 1853 that the ambitious doctorJan Karel van den Broek settled on Dejima. Herman J. Moeshart recently wrote a book about his life, called ‘Een Miskend Geneesheer’ (The Unrecognized Physician). This book tells the story of Van den Broek’s life in Japan, and the causes that he dedicated himself to. Van den Broek taught the Japanesehow to develop their defensive works, build blast furnaces but also photography. Afterworking with incompetent translators for many years, he decided to write a Japanese – Dutch dictionary. In 1857 Van Den Broek was forced to leave Dejima after a conflict with the highest Dutch authority on the island. ‘Jonkheer’ (a type of nobleman) Johannes Lydius Catharinus Pompe van Meerdervoort did not only take over Van Den Broek’s work as a physician on the island, but also hisphotography students. This marine officer founded the first western style hospital in Nagasaki and has a part of the current university hospital named after him. 

Two of Pompe’s students will be forever part of the Japanese photographic history. Hikoma Ueno (1838 – 1904) is undoubtedly the most famous one, as the founder of Japanese photography. And Kyuichi Uchida will always be known as the photographer that portrayed the newly appointed emperor and empress in 1853. In 1862, Ueno published the first Japanese chemistry book, of which part is dedicated to photography. He also opened the first Japanese photo studio in Nagasaki in the same year.

Pull back
The German photographer/collector Robert Lebeck managed to get his hands on six albumine prints by Ueno. These prints were shown in the Ludwig Museum in Cologne ten years ago after the museum took over the Lebeck collection. On one of the prints we see three samurai who all represent their own generation. A grandfather sits on a stool, with his son sitting next to him on the tatami-rug.His two year old grandchild has the traditional samurai hairstyle with a partly shaven head. By the time Ueno took this image, the role the Dutch teachers played was no longer important. In 1862, Antoon Bauduin succeeded Pompe van Meerdervoort. Bauduin shot hundreds of images as an amateur photographer during his eight-year stay in Japan. Another Dutch photographer, Henry Heusken, was killed by extremists who wanted to curb the infl uence of foreigners in Japan.