The Special Collection Research Center has made an exciting discovery about a photograph album in its collection. The album contains approximately 60 hand-colored albumen prints showing landscapes and architectural scenes in Japan during the late nineteenth century. The dimensions of the photographs are 21.5 x 28 cm (8.5 x 11 in). The album covers are lacquer with inlaid designs. Many photos have printed captions and numbers, but there is no indication as to who created them or the album. We have recently been able to attribute the album to Kusakabe Kimbei. A further description exists in the library’s online catalog.
Kusakabe Kimbei was a commercial photographer based in Yokohama, Japan, in the late nineteenth century, and he was one of the great native-born Japanese photographers of his time. He had been an apprentice of Baron Raimund von Stillfried, an Austrian who established a photographic studio in Japan in 1871. When Stillfried left Japan in 1885, Kusakabe bought his mentor’s stock and initiated his own studio, which existed until 1912.
Stillfried’s firm had purchased the stock of Felice (or Felix) Beato in 1877. Beato was an Italian-born photographer who established a studio in Japan during the mid-1860s and was one of the first Westerners to bring photography to the East Asian country. He employed Japanese artists to color his albumen prints, and he became knowledgeable of such Japanese art traditions as ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Both Stillfried and Beato specialized in studio portraits and genre scenes. Beato also specialized in landscape photographs. Westerners fascinated by Eastern cultures formed the major audience for their work. Kusakabe continued these traditions, perfecting the psychological portrait, and he seems to have catered to the same audience.
Hand-tinting of albumen photographic prints became a minor art form in Japan in the late nineteenth century. Japanese artists have had long traditions of coloring through fabric stenciling and woodblock printing. The transfer of these processes to photography resulted in works that have rivaled Western examples in skill and beauty. Because of the time-consuming process, a master colorist could finish only 2-3 prints per day, so Japanese photography studios drew upon the skills of large staffs.
The NCSU Libraries has held this particular photograph album for several years, probably decades, but its origins had become lost until recently. While perusing the catalog of a rare book dealer, Special Collections staff found a description for another nineteenth century Japanese album with Kusakabe photographs. Through online research, the staff was able to match two photos in the NCSU Libraries’ album with those in known Kusakabe collections, including one at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives in Washington, D.C. Research in print publications, including Japan Photographs, 1854-1905 (1979) by Clark Worswick and The History of Japanese Photography (2003) by and Anne Tucker, et al., also confirmed Kusakabe as the creator of some of these photos. Therefore, it is assumed that the entire NCSU Libraries’ album can be attributed to Kusakabe. One interesting aspect of the NCSU Libraries’ album is that it does not include any of the psychological portraits for which Kusakabe is now known. Rather, it only contains landscape and architectural scenes.
A bookplate on the inside cover of the album indicates it was donated by William T. Huxter. A William T. “Bill” Huxter was at NC State from the 1960s to the 1990s as a professor and extension specialist, first in Wood Products Extension and later in Extension Forestry.
If anyone knows more about the donation of this album, please contact the Special Collections Research Center. Interested researchers wanting to schedule a time to access the photo album may contact the Special Collections Research Center through the online form.