Photography reached Japan about twenty years later than its invention in Europe. The French artist Jacques Mandé Daguerre publicly showed the “daguerreotype”, the earliest photographic process, in 1839, whereas the first Japanese photo, a portrait of the daimyō Shimazu Nariakira, was taken in 1857. Feudal lords (daimyō), in fact, were essential for the spread of the new occidental technologies.
The Convention of Kanagawa (1854), the first treaty between USA and Japan, brought to an end the sakoku policy. After decades, during which the only contact with western people was circumscribed to the presence of the “Dutch East India Company” in the port of Nagasaki, Japan started to be largely influenced by occidental innovations. Harbor cities represented the nucleus of the western contamination, so the main photographic studios were opened in Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe.
In 1863, five years before the formal end of the Edo period, the Italian photographer Felice Beato moved to Yokohama. It was the beginning of an epochal change. The following year, Beato, next to the English artist Charles Wirgman, founded The Beato & Wirgman, Artists and Photographers partnership, revolutionizing the photographic approach. After many experiences all around the world, the Italian innovator chose to instruct Japanese in photography. Although “Japanism” is generally referred to the European aesthetic cult of Japanese art and culture, the work of Beato represented a similar, and almost contemporary, way to propose a harmonious coexistence between distant cultures.
Felice did more than just train Japanese photographers like the well-known Kusakabe Kimbei. The Italian master, in fact, was the first one to introduce the hand coloration of photos. Through the use of watercolors, Beato gave life to a successful production. Taking inspiration from the ukiyo-e prints, he started to reproduce the same famous views portrayed by Hokusai and Hiroshige photographically. It was a fertile field, and photography had the possibility of seriality on its side. Painting every shot, Beato made his art more attractive and very competitive in the flourishing ukiyo-e market, which was well-established both in Japan and in Europe.
Followed by the Italian photographer Adolfo Farsari, Beato was the main architect of an artistic and cultural revolution. His hand colored photos represent both the fruit of the mutual contamination between different artistic languages, and an iconographic proof of that changing period. Therefore, the creative and aesthetic value is supported by an equal anthropologic relevance. Felice Beato photographed many social classes, professions, habits and utensils that were going to disappear because of the Meiji Restoration and the consequent westernization of Japan. Art, once again, shows its indefinable merit, that is able to change from celebration to recollection.