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Seeing Japan Through the Eyes of Frank Lloyd Wright

The architect’s photographs from his first trip to Japan reveal his fascination with a country that played a large role in the development of his work.

Frank Lloyd Wright, photo of Sutra Library, Chion-in Temple, Kyoto (1905) (all photos from the Collection of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust and used with permission)

In 1905, Frank Lloyd Wright made his first trip to Japan, where he observed with his own eyes the architecture and landscape that had deeply influenced his practice for nearly two decades. Like any eager tourist, he carried with him a camera to document his surroundings. The resulting snapshots are rarely seen records, having been published only through a title that’s out of print, but they are now available for public perusal through a new website launched by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.

Frank Lloyd Wright, photo of Great Buddha at Nofukuji Temple, Kobe (1905)

Donated by Wright’s son, David, the collection of 40 photographs offers views of temples, shrines, and gardens in cities from Kyoto to Okayama. An interactive map on the website traces Wright’s route, which began and ended at Yokohama port. Accompanied by his clients Ward and Cecilia Willits, and by his wife, Wright had arrived via steamship from Vancouver Harbor after taking a train north from Chicago. 

By the time of this trip, the American architect was already an avid collector of ukiyo-e prints, and the journey through Japan, in his words, was made “in pursuit of the print.” Wright’s general understanding of Japanese life came from these pictures of the “floating world,” and his 1905 photographs reveal a keenness to witness these scenes in real life. 

“When you look at them they capture a sense of a vanishing Japan, which was at this point quite rapidly modernizing,” the Trust’s curator David Bagnall told Hyperallergic. “They definitely have a sense of nostalgia based on Wright’s own knowledge of Japan from Japanese prints.”

Some of the photographs even hint at Wright’s attempts to mimic the composition of ukiyo-e prints, in addition to including commonly represented subjects. Bagnall compares one picture taken outside Kyoto’s Chion-in temple to an image by Hiroshige from his series “100 famous views of Edo.” Although set in different locations, both feature a large round lantern in the foreground and a temple in the the background. Wright particularly favored Hiroshige’s works, and purchased many prints by the Japanese artist during his trip. When he returned to Chicago, he curated the first ever retrospective of Hiroshige at the Art Institute, drawing from his own collection.

Frank Lloyd Wright, photo of Founder’s Hall, Chion-in Temple, Kyoto (1905)

These photographs, of course, also center on the architectural details that appealed to Wright. After his first physical encounter with Japanese architecture at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition — through the magnificent Phoenix Pavilion, or Ho-o-den — Wright explored many of its ideas, such as simplicity of form and geometric abstraction. He absorbed these into his practice to develop his signature Prairie Style.

“In many ways, the buildings and sites Wright visited were validation of what he’d been working towards in his architecture in the Chicago area,” Bagnall said. “Although he’s shooting different buildings, they all have very similar features: large, single, or double hip roofs, very balanced proportions, strong horizontals, and a very sensitive use of building materials — all elements that he’s already incorporated into his own architecture.”

Wright also often photographed a building’s exterior multiple times, from different perspectives. His images have a sense of purposefulness that is especially clear when they are seen as a collection. Sadly, one intent the architect didn’t appear to have as a photographer was to record himself in the landscape. But while we don’t have any charming images of Wright posing in front of a temple or sitting in a garden, there’s still something very personal about these photographs.

Frank Lloyd Wright, photo of the west gate at Higashi-Honganji Temple, Nagoya-Betsuin, Nagoya (1905)
Frank Lloyd Wright, photo of a Shinto shrine, Chion-in Temple, KyotoNagoya (1905)
Frank Lloyd Wright, photo of travelers on a mountain pass (1905)
Frank Lloyd Wright, photo of the Garden of Kōraku-en, Okayama (1905)
Frank Lloyd Wright, photo of Sutra Library, Chion-in Temple, Kyoto (1905)
Frank Lloyd Wright, photo of a bell tower, Higashi-Honganji Temple, Nagoya-Betsuin, Nagoya (1905)
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