Brücke mit Menschen im Hintergrund der schneebedeckte Mt. Fuji

This remarkable assortment of Japanese photographs from the late-nineteenth century held in the Ethnological Collection of the Museum Natur und Mensch is the result of collecting activities on the part of German travellers to the country after US-Navy warships coerced Japan into signing treaties in 1854, which ultimately enabled trade with Japan.  

For visitors to Japan, the photographs created memories: the photographers generated representations, whether realistic or not, of a country and culture, and composed informative and visually-striking, subtly hand-coloured images that depict famous sites, city scenes and portraits of individual Japanese going about their daily lives. The photographs, which were sold in large numbers to Western travellers in souvenir shops and photographic studios owned by both Western and Japanese photographers, are notable for the high level of technical ability, the innovative use of a limited range of watercolours and the striking, often quietly poetic, compositions. It was these very photographs that were imprinted on the minds of visitors and reinforced, reproduced, or even engendered the image of a faraway, foreign land.  

Wand mit Einführungstext zur Ausstellung

Nikkō and the Tōshōgū Shrine

Nikkō was one of the most popular destinations for foreign visitors during the late-nineteenth century. Located to the north of Tokyo, this city could be visited on a day trip and afforded luxurious accommodation in a number of hotels in a spa region. At this location, the Tōshōgū – a shrine featuring colourful and elaborate buildings carved with fine details – was dedicated to the founder of the Edo period, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616). Befitting its popularity, the shrine became a standard feature of photographic albums from Japan, indeed, the Ethnological Collection owns a fine representative collection of images from the location, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

Eingangstreppe und Tor zum Nikkōsan-Rinnōji-Tempel

The Entrance Stairway and Gate to the Nikkōsan Rinnōji Temple
This temple is located within the city of Nikkō and was founded 1,200 years ago; it predates the more famous Tōshōgū Shrine by over a half millennium. The temple houses three eight-metre-tall gold statues and the main hall of the temple is the largest Buddhist wooden structure in Eastern Japan. 

after 1873, hand-painted silver gelatine print
11.8 x 29.2 cm, Suzuki Studios
Inv. XHF/IV/0333


Foreign visitors were interested in the actual living conditions of Japanese citizens as seen in the images of bustling streets, farming communities and numerous temples and shrines. The early photographs tend to focus on places in Yokohama and Kamakura that were within the permitted areas for foreigners according to treaties negotiated with the Japanese government. Later, photographs would include other urban locations, such as Tokyo, which was one the world’s largest metropolitan conurbations at the time. Not only do the skills of the photographers come to the fore, but also those of the colourists, who painted the black-and-white photographs, adding details and tints, as well as creating temporal and atmospheric effects, such as the ever-present autumnal foliage. 

Das Theaterviertel Isezakichō von Yokohama

The Theatre District Isezakichō of Yokohama
To the right we see a theatre with its colourful banners advertising plays and famous actors. The painted posters (ekamban) placed under the roof display dramatic scenes in the plays. Comic monologues (rakugo) were also an important part of the entertainment offered at these locations. Several jinrikisha pulled by their porters are also visible. 

after 1870, hand-painted silver gelatine print
11.9 x 29 cm, photographer unknown
Inv. XHF/IV/0406

Staging the Everyday

Some of the most striking images in the collection are those of the Japanese people as they appear in the photographs. Some of the photographs are obviously staged and created to match Western expectations, yet they also reveal unscripted, spontaneous reactions and insights into the personalities of the sitters. It is worth noticing that women become the focal point in many of the photographs; a fact that could be explained by their popularity with the predominantly male buyers. As a result, photographs of this kind helped to create a particular image of Japanese women.  And no art form stands alone: in some of the photographs, it is possible to trace the reception of woodblock print artists, such as Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), a master in the ‘beautiful women’ tradition (bijinga) dating back a number of centuries.  In other photographs, it is possible to pick out the marks of Japan in the throes of modernisation, such as telegraph poles. 

Eine Partie go

A Game of Go
Interior studio scene with a carefully-staged game in progress. The two players, an older man and a young woman, are playing a game of go, while watched by a girl, who stands there holding a fan. Food and drinks can be seen next to the game board and a painting is shown hanging in the tokonoma alcove behind the players. 

1860 - 1890, albumen print on mounting board
21.6 x 26.6 cm, photographer unknown
Inv. XHF/IV/0633


Many visitors, having seen and even collected woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai, came to Japan expecting to see similar landscapes in the flesh, as it were. Of course, this was a somewhat unrealistic prospect in a country that was rapidly undergoing modernisation.  The photographers and the colourists, in turn, did their best to satisfy this desire for lyrical landscapes when creating their compositions. As a result, a number of parallels can be drawn between the photographs and woodblock prints of similar locations. Iconic views, such as that of Mount Fuji, as well as popular locations were favoured – the intention seems to have been to strike a chord in the memory of the given buyer, of seeing something that he or she might have seen, either in prints, in reality, or in his or her imagination. 

Der Strand von Shichirigahama nahe der Insel Enoshima

Shichirigahama Beach Near Enoshima Island
This famous site has been depicted in Japanese paintings and woodblock prints many times. It is near Enoshima Island, seen to the left, and Mount Fuji in the centre of the background. The beach is called the Shichirigahama and remains a popular site, also when this photograph was taken, since the location, close by Kamakura, was a short trip from Yokohama. 

1860 - 1890, hand-painted silver gelatine print
21.5 x 26.5 cm, photographer unknown
Inv. XHF/IV/0293

The Leporello Album of a German Admiral

A leporello album containing one hundred albumen prints of photographs taken by a variety of photographers: the album has been bound in silk replete with auspicious characters denoting good fortune and longevity; it has been stored in a fitted box made of kiri (pauwlonia wood) with a landscape drawn on the lid by a western amateur artist, perhaps the previous owner. The album belonged to Admiral Victor Schönfelder (1856-1931), who travelled the world and subsequently spent his retirement in Freiburg. The photographs in the album, which include images of the Meiji Emperor and his consort taken by Uchida Kuichi (1844-1912), may well have been selected by the Admiral himself. The album is remarkable on account of the inscriptions made by different writers – imparting information in German and Japanese – that at times contradict one another. The album was donated to the museum by the Admiral’s widow after his death.

Das Leporello-Album in einer Vitrine in der Ausstellung



Erinnerungen schaffen = Creating memories: Japanese Photographs. Begleitbuch zur Ausstellung. Hrsg. von Lisa Bauer-Zhao. Dresden: Sandstein-Verlag 2023.

The exhibition catalogue is available in the museum shop.