ShashinJapanese Photographs from the Meiji era, 1870-1900

March 11 through July 23, 2023

Kusakabe Kimbei, Umbrella Maker (detail), c. 1880, Albumen print, Gift of Ludmila and Bruce Dandrew from The Ludmila Dandrew and Chitranee Drapkin Collection

“The Japanese are perfect masters of this art [photography], which was only introduced a few years ago…” Count Joseph Alexander Hübner (1811–1892), Austrian diplomat in Japan (1871)

Although photography was invented in 1839 in France, shashin—the Japanese word for photograph— was not fully introduced in Japan until the mid-1860s. Learning the craft from European photographers, Japanese photographers were quick to embrace the ambrotype, albumen, and carte-de-visite processes. Most opened studios in the 1870s amid stiff European competition, but by the 1890s, Japanese photographers dominated the market. 

While many Japanese studios adopted the earlier conventions established by European studios, photographers like Kusakabe Kimbei (1841–1934) incorporated subtle variations in content which underscored the movement toward modernization prevalent in Meiji-era Japan (1868–1912). Discovering a new approach to present local subjects to a primarily foreign audience, his meticulously hand-painted genre images reflect a dynamic merging of the subject matter and artistic sensibility of Japanese woodblock prints with photographic technology. Ogawa Kazumasa (1860–1929)—a pioneer in photomechanical color printing—produced lusciously colorful botanical works that emphasized the artistic merits of photography. Ambrotype portraits housed in handmade kiri-wood boxes—a uniquely Japanese presentation—served as personal mementos of loved ones. Later, cartes-de-visite made images of family and notable personalities accessible to everyone.

Beautiful and superbly crafted, this selection of photographs showcases the skill and innovation of Japanese photographers working in Japan from 1870–1900. Comprised of almost 50 works from the MFA Collection—most of which have never been on view to the public—early Japanese photography served a multitude of functions including mementos for remembrance, collectibles for tourists, and furthered the notion of photography as an art. 


Underwritten by The Garth Family Foundation. Sponsored in part by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Arts and Culture, the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, and the National Endowment for the Arts.