Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 20, 2017
Luke Gartlan A Career of Japan: Baron Raimund von Stillfried and Early Yokohama Photography Leiden: Brill, 2015. 384 pp.; 165 ills. Cloth $128.00 (9789004289321)

In the last few years, nineteenth-century Japanese souvenir photography from the port city of Yokohama has witnessed increasing public interest after decades of neglect in institutional archives. In the current decade alone, there have been more than five special exhibitions across Europe dedicated to these photographic works. This unexpected emergence of so-called “Yokohama photography” was pioneered by new critical scholarship. Building upon the persistent research efforts on the visual souvenir industry of a small group of historians and photo historians since the 1980s (e.g., Saitō Takio, Terry Bennett, and Sebastian Dobson, to name a few), the scholarship has seen a pivotal turn in research approach. Departing from biography-focused study, newer work offers a more contextualized scholarship informed by poststructuralist critiques.

Luke Gartlan’s latest publication, A Career of Japan: Baron Raimund von Stillfried and Early Yokohama Photography, represents the happy medium of these approaches. Taking a microhistorical approach to explore the works of Baron Raimund von Stillfried-Ratenicz (1839–1911), one of the key protagonists of the souvenir photography industry in Yokohama during the 1870s, Gartlan explains that his methodology is based on exactly the very particularities that shaped the life and complicated identity of this seminal photographer. While Stillfried was shaped by the Austro-Hungarian model of colonial expansion, his cross-cultural personal life—wandering between Europe, South America, Siberia, Siam, China, and Japan—led to a complex attitude toward empire. In recognizing such individual differences from larger “norms,” Gartlan draws on the potential to provoke a shift in academic discourse, previously dominated by a rather monolithic, implicitly Anglo-French-biased history of nineteenth-century travel photography. Replete with a large number of historical materials from archives in Japan, Austria, and other parts of the globe, this monograph vividly showcases how Stillfried’s reality engendered an ambivalence in his subjectivity and his visual production. While some might find Gartlan’s approach conservative in comparison with the theoretically focused current research trend, his new biographical insights will inevitably provoke a reassessment of the previous discourse on both Stillfried and Yokohama photography, which emphasized the postcolonial stereotyping of his work.

The chapters are arranged in roughly chronological order beginning with the first chapter dedicated to Stillfried’s formative years as teenage cadet, seafarer, and volunteer in the Imperial Mexican Army. The chapter’s key concern centers on his identity formation as an aristocratic photographer in exile, in personal crisis regarding his imperial allegiances because of the downfall of Imperial Mexico and the decline of the Habsburg Empire. Gartlan portrays Stillfried as a witness to unorthodox aspects of nineteenth-century imperialism, and as a contrast to the mainstream, Anglo-French-centered discourse on European artists traveling during the period of high colonialism, which often claims that colonialist ideology dominates their work. Stillfried’s dynamic personal narrative is scattered across the following chapters and marked by his continuous search for business options in Japan (1864–65; 1868–81), and—as discussed in the last section of the book—in Siberia, Hong Kong, and Siam (late 1880s), before his final return to Vienna. Gartlan’s new findings of biographical details also reveal Stillfried’s shocking shady side, which inevitably offers a new perspective on the Yokohama photography industry. For instance, a little-known court case between Stillfried and his Japanese employee in connection with Stillfried’s private commercial enterprise—the Japanese teahouse at the Vienna World Exposition in 1873—clearly exposes Yokohama photography’s “seamy underside, repressive, exploitative, and even violent, [one] that belies the tranquil world usually depicted in its visual products” (144). While the impact of Stillfried’s early personal connections with other non-Japanese protagonists in the Meiji photography industry—Charles Parker, Michael Moser, and Wilhelm Burger—on the visual language of his work still remains rather speculative, Gartlan’s biography-focused approach contributes to the discussion on the visual rhetoric of Stillfried’s first portfolio (ca. 1871–ca. 1874) after his studio’s opening in 1871. Stillfried’s “tranquil, picturesque aesthetic” (46), as Gartlan argues, implicitly promoted his aristocratic background and demonstrates a stark contrast with the candid style of visual recording typical of Felice Beato, “one of the period’s most accomplished travel photographers” (42) and associated with Stillfried both personally and professionally (47–48).

Gartlan presents several new insights that will foster reassessments of Stillfried’s professional work. In his discussion of Stillfried’s shifting visual strategies from his first portfolio (catering mainly to the expat community’s local interests) to his second portfolio from the mid-1870s (targeting “globetrotters” as a newly emerging clientele), Gartlan stresses Stillfried’s entanglement in local discourse in his first portfolio and problematizes the simplistic framing of these early works according to the “salvage paradigm” (33–35). It was rather the socio-cultural shift of his patrons or “cultural remapping” (65) that later forced the photographer to produce generic images of premodern Japan, responding to his new customers’ expectations of a pre-industrial, “authentic” Japan (65). Gartlan illustrates in detail in chapter 7 how Stillfried’s visual tropes supplied a perceived “authenticity” to his images of Japanese society in the mid-1870s, especially in comparison with modernity-oriented genre images produced by Stillfried’s pupil and later business rival, Usui Shūzaburō. Through the use of props, architectural mise-en-scène, and sitters adopting “an averted, absent-minded gaze” (176) meant to register as symbolic of their assumed submissiveness, Stillfried highly theatricalized his mid-1870s genre images—undoubtedly his most iconic works—which Gartlan contextualizes as Stillfried’s market-driven reaction to his clients’ demand for images’ ethnographic accuracy.

Stillfried’s deep entanglement with the visual and representational politics of Meiji Japan, a long-neglected facet of his professional activities, offers another new aspect of his professional life far beyond the general assessment of his works as nostalgic depictions of Japan for the international tourist market. Surprisingly, Stillfried was closely associated with the Japanese nation-building process and Japanese photographers. Gartlan’s new findings on Stillfried’s unauthorized photograph of the Meiji emperor and his entourage during his first public appearance in 1872 indicate that the imperial commission of the Meiji emperor’s portrait to photographer Uchida Kuichi might well have been triggered directly by this Stillfried affair, and not upon a proposal by the Iwakura Mission (1871–73), as was previously assumed (96). Stillfried’s reputation and long experience of Japan also helped him to receive a number of official commissions in the following years, even after this scandal. The competitive photography market in Yokohama, especially from the mid-1870s on, apparently compelled Stillfried to delve into such multi-faceted activities well beyond the production of Yokohama photography and the marketing of “his social self to further his commercial enterprise” (180).

Initiated by a rapid loss of control over his studio, his portfolio, and his trademark, the decline of his photography business during his last tenure in Japan was, as discussed in the final chapter, marked by a series of legal battles and confusion over two resultant “Stillfried studios.” In his late phase in Japan before his return to Europe in May 1881, legal difficulties and fierce market competition forced him to shift both his business operation and visual language, resulting in the emergence of so-called photocrayons, hand-colored photographs featuring broad brush strokes and impasto colors. These pictures, little known in the previous scholarship, were on sale at his Yokohama studio and introduced to Vienna’s Japoniste art circle through several exhibitions and lectures in 1884 and 1886. As Gartlan suggests, the possible impact of these photographs on yōga (Western-style) painters in Japan during the 1870s would merit further analysis. In my view, this exciting finding by Gartlan also suggests possible interactions with the flourishing Meiji souvenir industry in Yokohama, as represented by yokohama-e Western-style souvenir paintings by Goseda-school painters in Yokohama and British Yokohama-based artist Charles Wirgman.

The micro-level approach to Stillfried’s transcultural persona with its vivid details is truly fascinating and yields a myriad of potential new research perspectives. Nevertheless, those who study Meiji visual history might be critical of the book’s predominance of biographic narrative vis-à-vis visual analysis. Specialists working with art-historical methods might also find lacunae: the “picturesque” tradition that informs Stillfried’s scenic photographs, as well as nineteenth-century popular Darwinism and market interest for photographic “native types,” for instance, would have merited a detailed discussion, particularly with respect to the visual logic of contemporary clients’ gaze. Informed readers might also wonder why the book is silent on a well-known series of semi-nude female portraits typically associated with Stillfried. The discussion in chapter 8 on the erroneous attribution of works from the 1880s to Raimund―rather than to his former partner, Hermann Andersen, or to Raimund’s brother, Baron Franz von Stillfried―do not clearly explain whether such eroticized images might or might not belong to his oeuvre.

These objections, however, are not enough to diminish the impact of this fascinating, well-researched book, built upon a rich foundation of little-known and newly discovered historical documents. This monograph―abundantly illustrated with large color images and supplemented with appendices containing newly discovered documents―is full of undiscovered treasures that will help foster scholarship on nineteenth-century photography, especially Yokohama photography, along with research on transcultural histories. Gartlan’s decision to focus on Stillfried’s colorful biography sheds a light on the shortcomings of previous scholarship. The book explores aspects of his personal paths as a method to engage with the wider structure that frames Stillfried scholarship, i.e., historiographical ignorance of Stillfried’s work and his photographic practices, which were informed by fierce competition among expat and Japanese photographers. Gartlan’s stress on lively interpersonal connections among expats and local professionals―Hermann Andersen, Erwin Bälz, Felice Beato, Wilhelm Burger, Edoardo Chiossone, Charles Longfellow, Shūzaburō Usui, to name a few―demonstrates the dynamism of Stillfried’s Yokohama photography as an intersection of globalizing tourism, the local photography industry, and the national and international visual politics of the Meiji government. At the same time, Gartlan seeks to reconstitute Stillfried’s scattered work within the context of early Meiji photography practices and their application in the Yokohama photography industry. The book is an important contribution to the research on early Japanese photography history, as the mainstream scholarship still does not adequately acknowledge the personal and professional entanglements between Japanese and non-Japanese practitioners active in Japan in the late nineteenth century.

A Career of Japan offers a crucial revision of previous photography scholarship—which too often provides a biased, nationality-focused history of photography in Japan—and helps open the way for more multifaceted transcultural histories of photography in Japan. This publication is highly recommended for the interested general public, for specialists of Meiji Japan and nineteenth-century transcultural history, and for the study of nineteenth-century photography in a globalizing world.

Mio Wakita
Assistant Professor, Institute of East Asian Art History, Heidelberg University