Posts Tagged ‘Ukiyo-e artists’

Japanese hand colour

Wednesday, October 14th, 2020

Although I knew something about the history of Japan and of photography in the country in the nineteenth century, and had written a little about it and in particular the work of European photographers such as Felice Beato, the video in ‘How colorized photos helped introduce Japan to the world‘ from VOX which was featureed on Digital Photography Review with a useful introduction showed me much that I hadn’t previously known. It was particularly interesting to see the comparisons between some of the photographs and Ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings.

The introduction of photography led to redundancies among Ukiyo-e artists (as it did to miniature painters in Europe) and some found new employment using their skills in photographic studios hand colouring prints in a much more subtle manner than in other countries. Soon some of them were becoming photographers too and setting up their own studios. I haven’t read Photography in Japan 1853-1912 by Terry Bennett which the video credits, but it looks an interesting volume.

Japanese art was in the same period being taken back to the west and had a strong influence on many western artists, and I think largely through them on photography around the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the 20th century which can clearly be seen for example in some of the work exhibited by members of the Photo-Secession some of the best of whose work was published by Alfred Stieglitz in his fine magazine Camera Work.

Recent years have seen a new interest in hand-colouring of old pictures, now made much easier by digital means. It’s something that while it may add some life and a greater sense of reality to old photographs I find rather upsetting when applied to many well-known images. As a photographer I feel that there is a disrespect in changing what was a carefully considered black and white image into one in colour and I imagine the photographers turning in their graves at how their work is being done to their pictures.

It also bothers me because the digital recolouring is creating a false reality – as hand colouring could also do. For a long time we had on a mantelpiece a hand coloured picture of my wife sitting in a Manchester park wearing a red jumper; it had been hand-coloured and although the grass had been coloured in a fair approximation to its actual colour, her green jumper was not. It’s a trivial example, but what the colouring produces is false colour and fake reality. For most subjects it probably isn’t a great problem but it seems to me to undermine one of the fundamental aspects of photography, the physical link between subject and depiction. The camera with our help lies but it doesn’t invent.


My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage : Flickr