British photographic history

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Koshashin: Early Japanese photography 1860-1899

KOSHASHIN, Japanese for period photographs, presents a rare opportunity to view one of the world’s largest collections of early Japanese photography. There are more than 230 works in this exhibition, on loan from the personal collection of Edmontonian Arlene Hall. This was a private treasure until its debut at the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA), which organized the exhibition in 2009.

The exhibition was curated by AGA Deputy Director and Chief Curator Catherine Crowston. The accompanying book-length catalogue, published by the AGA, contains an essay by British photography historian and author Terry Bennett, and includes 103 full-colour plates.

The photographs in the exhibition reflect the transitional period from 1860 to 1899, when feudal Japan was opening to the outside world and yielding to modern influences. The country had re-opened its borders to foreign trade, visitors and residents in 1859, after a self-imposed isolation of more than 200 years.KOSHASHIN includes works by both Western and Japanese photographers, who used unwieldy, large-format cameras, paper and glass plate negatives.

While providing glimpses into Japanese culture, the exhibition also offers insight into the passion of collectors. Thanks to the interests and resources of these individuals, collections are assembled for the benefit of future generations. Hall herself has collected more than 800 historic Japanese photographs over the past 40 years.

Some of the earliest works in KOSHASHIN are documentary in nature, but many were staged in photography studios, in order to produce souvenir albums for European tourists. The photographs are albumen prints. They are unique in that most of them have been hand-coloured by artists who trained as painters and printmakers. 

There are images of waterfalls, snow-covered Mount Fujiyama, cherry trees trailing pink clouds of blossoms. Portraits range from the personal (a woman having her hair dressed) to the ceremonial (weddings, funerals, tea rituals.) There are also images of pedlars and prostitutes, doctors and tailors, farmers planting and harvesting rice or picking tea-leaves. This unique Canadian collection offers an unparalleled reflection of Japan as it was 150 years ago.

You can find details of the exhibition here.

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