Hand-Colored Photos of Religion in Meiji-Era Japan

A small exhibition at Resobox gallery in Queens offers a glimpse of spiritual activity from the past.

Kimbei Kusakabe, “Haiden, Zōjō-Ji, Shiba, Tokyo” (1880s) (all photos © Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive)

The ornate Yomei-mon Gate at Nikkō Tōshō-gū, a Shinto shrine in Japan’s Tochigi Prefecture, has one pillar that stands upside down. The orientation is deliberate: builders in 1617 did not want to anger the gods by erecting a perfect building. Such subtle, reverent details exemplify the spiritualism that has long been an integral part of Japanese culture, manifested in the country’s two main religions, Shinto and Buddhism. Religion today may not play as large a role for many Japanese citizens as it did centuries ago, but a small exhibition at Resobox gallery in Queens offers a glimpse of spiritual activity from the past. It showcases photographs from the Meiji Era, when the government declared Shinto the official state religion, separating it from Buddhism.

Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto (click to enlarge)

That period between 1868 and 1912 also represents the early decades of photography, when pictures were still hand colored and unique. The 30 images on view, which include one faded view of the Yomei-mon Gate, all underwent this careful process to make black-and-white scenes appear more vivid and closer to reality. They come from the massive archive of photo historian Stanley B. Burns, MD, who has, for the past five years, presented an annual exhibition of hand-painted Japanese photographs at Resobox.

The current show, titled Worship in Meiji Era Japan: Nineteenth Century Photographs from the Burns Archive, displays the many ways religion transformed the architectural landscape of Japan. Aside from shrines, temples, and high-rise pagodas, people built sacred bridges, such as the the Shinkyo Bridge in Nikko that curves over the Daiya River. The structure is known for its vermillion lacquer; the photograph of it on view maintains this bright paint, the red of the pathway popping against a foggy landscape. Many stone sculptures also made their mark across Japan during this time, particularly giant ones of Buddha known as Daibutsu. The exhibition features a number of photographs of these hulking, outdoor works that offer a sense of the serenity they must introduce to anyone in their environment.

Perhaps the most captivating among the collection are scenes brought to life by the people recorded in them, from pilgrims to musicians and dancers at religious festivals to priests and worshipers congregating on temple steps. In one image, a Buddhist priest sits before an altar, its decorations rendered in gleaming gold and vivid reds and pinks. Another documents the Sanja Matsuri Festival that still occurs annually in Tokyo, with a large crowd surrounding a portable shrine. Other photographs are less spontaneous captures: studio portraits that set Shinto or Buddhist priests — some of them role-played by models costumed in garments from previous eras — in more sterile settings. Such pictures suggest a desire to document and preserve the importance of religion as an integral part of daily life.

Shinto Procession
Shinto Procession
Morning Prayer Of Buddhist Priest
Karamon Iyemitsu Temple, Nikkō
Daibutsu at Kamakura
Installation view of ‘Worship in Meiji Era Japan’ at Resobox (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Worship in Meiji Era Japan’ at Resobox (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Worship in Meiji Era Japan: Nineteenth Century Photographs from the Burns Archive continues at Resobox (41-26 27th Street, Long Island City, Queens) through October 11.

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