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World of light and shadow

By Enid Saunders Candlin / January 26, 1981



This picture, taken roughly 100 years ago, remains a masterpiece of composition and style even though the technique of photography has enormously advanced since then. In that reassuring manner, which is part of a superlative creation, Kusakabe Kimbei's print does not suffer in comparison with the work of the present; it endures not as a landmark or a curiosity but because of its own intrinsic merit -- it expresses certain artistic qualities that are inviolable. It is not alone in this; for instance, those early photographs Dodgson made in England at about this time have not been surpassed in their extraordinary sensitivity, composition, and ability to portray character; in the hands of a genius, the cumbersome, unsophisticated photographic apparatus could not in either case, curb these elements.

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It is odd that this invention coincided, more or less, with the discovery of the Occident by Japan, and the opening of that country to Western influence after so many centuries when mutual awareness was very dim. Almost immediately the Japanese showed themselves peculiarly gifted in the use of the camera; everyone seemed to fall in love with it. In those early years of the Meiji Restoration, when the country was going through its astonishing swing towards Western modes, a number of excellent European photographers came to Japan (Felix Beato, Le Bas, von Stillfried), and it was not long before local men of equal talent began to emulate them, photographers like Odawa Isshin and Kusakabe Kimbei. They entered the world of the camera, with its shifting views of light and shadow, its sudden glimpse of an unexpected angle, its black and white reflection, with amazing proficiency and enthusiasm. Umbrellas -- Japanese umbrellas, made of silk or paper with bamboo, ornamented with captivating painted designs -- lent themselves enchantingly to the new medium just as they had to older forms of Japanese art as, for example, the ukiyo-e woodcuts where a tall woman in high clogs pauses on the street to open her umbrella, its dark spokes contrasting with a pale background; a ferry crosses over to an island with someone in the bows hidden under a parasol.

In this illustration Kimbei chose a genre scene everyone would recognize: those first photographers instinctively felt the importance of recording a way of life they sensed would soon alter or disappear. He placed his absorbed figure, the umbrella maker, in the center, grouping his wares around him in such a way that the light, coming through the transparent circles and glinting from the varnished bamboo ribs, would illumine the linear complexities of the composition and fall upon the simple, essential tools. The minor elements are cleverly subordinated to the bold design of the five open umbrellas, yet the eye returns to consider the modest figure who is making them, sitting on the ground amid the shadow and sunshine of his own beautifully fashioned creations while being simultaneously and beautifully photographed himself.