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A Silver Mizunotype:


by Celio H. Barreto, Part 3 of 4.

· Photomicrography,Mizunotype,Photographic History,Yokohama Shashin,Japan


In spite of the difficulties of asserting image attribution, the photograph used for the mizunotype was rather easy to find. The image in this photograph is a well known picture titled “Enjoying a cool evening on Yuka platforms along the Kamo river”, usually attributed to the famous photographer Tamamura Kozaburo, and listed in the Metadata Database of Japanese Old Photographs in Bakumatsu-Meiji Period, Nagasaki University Library, However, Terry Bennett attributes it to Amateur Photographer Y. Isawa in his 2006 tome Old Japanese Photographs: Collector's Data Guide, page 39.

Fig. 5, a condition report highlighting the different types of damage visible to the naked eye.

At this point in my research, I had to take a closer look at the photographic process used to create this it. At first glance it appears to be rendered on a dull metal plate. Fortunately, the metallic photograph has suffered extensive physical damage, as evidenced by its many scratches, dents, image losses, and punctures. This damage reveals facets of the photograph's materiality not readily apparent from viewing the image layer alone. For instance, image losses from scratches reveal that the image is formed by a metallic substance on top of a black ground, and not a dark substance creating the shadows on a dull and grey metallic plate. The order of the first two layers is firmly established.

The strongest clues as to the composition of the different layers of the photograph come through in the visible damage. The loss of a 1mm2 portion of image and substrate from a small puncture near the centre of the image (Fig. 6, circled green in the condition report) reveals wood beneath the black surface coating. The label in Figure 2 states that the core of the lacquer photographs is Hinoki (a rot-resistant cedar variety native to central Japan) wood It shows that on top of the wood is a fairly thick coating.

Fig. 6, 100x photomicrograph of the puncture damage reveals the object's composition: the silver image layer on top; the black lacquer support and finally the organic substrate base.

What's more intriguing is a loss area near the centre top of the image (Fig. 7), which appears to have been wiped off, removing the metallic dust entirely in the central part, but more gradually to either side. This physical damage is a source of speculation, since the rest of the image is coated with a clear varnish.

Fig. 7, Image loss at top centre of the image is likely due to wiping with a solvent, presumably to clean the surface.

There is one more thing that caught my attention. Under magnification, it is possible to see a small drop-like formation of silver dust built up on the edge of a loss area (Fig. 8) This suggests to me that some of the scratches may have scraped off the image layer and the top varnish agglutinating them into these forms.

Fig. 8, 100x photomicrograph showing the agglutination of metallic particles from physical intervention.

With the use of a 100x microscope, it is possible to see that very small metallic particles of a roughly uniform size form the image itself (Fig. 9). These metallic particles are more closely concentrated in the highlight areas than in the shadows, and they don't appear to be distributed following any particular pattern. There is no half-tone screen pattern, reticulation or any other common patterning associated with photomechanical reproductions. Rather, the random arrangement of the image particles look more like a silver halide image.  The highly reflective grains making up the image are unlike those that make up other photographic processes on metal, such as daguerreotypes or tintypes. However, it shares one key feature with both daguerreotypes: the image particle distribution pattern appears to be similar, and as with tintypes: a black base support is required to render the shadow areas. This means that the silver powder image would have looked like a negative prior to application to the black lacquer ground.

Fig. 9, 100x photomicrograph showing the distribution of metallic particles in the image's highlight and shadow areas.

The fact that the image iridesces under fluorescent light has cast a question about nature of the top coat layer: Is it transparent urushi lacquer or collodion coating?. This optical light refraction characteristic usually points to a collodion top layer or emulsion, which were commonly used in many photographic processes of the time. A 1935 method of producing cheap mizunotype-like images employs collodion as the final top coating substance. However, less familiar in the West is the tamamushi coating technique used in some Japanese lacquerware. It is named after the jewel beetle and it is in fact an iridescent coating developed in Sendai. A 2010 published patent cites the use of colloidal silver suspended in urushi lacquer to create an iridescent coating substance like that of the tamamushi top coating technique. Perhaps Mizuno intentionally varnished his photographs with a tamamushi-like varnish, or it may be that this refraction is a byproduct of top-coating deterioration over the last 120 years. Further analysis will be required to ascertain the top coatings' chemical composition.

Now, while this varnish has protected the metallic particles from shifting around, it appears to be weak against physical damage as evidenced by the number of abrasions, scratches and losses. It does not seem to be strong protection against cleaning, as a large portion seems to have been removed by a wiping action. No maker’s mark, stamp or signature is visible on the image.


This photograph fits within what Marriage, et al term Type C group of metallic prints: gold (or occasionally silver) photographs on black lacquer as part of another item such as an album cover or tray which are usually unmarked. The popularity of such elaborate souvenir photo albums also falls largely within the 15-year time frame protecting Mizuno's patent during his professional practice. The cover image has been attributed to Tamamura, whose studio was also well stocked with negatives by other photographers. The album itself is mostly composed of pictures by Kozaburo Tamamura, T. Enami, and even some attributed to Baron Raymond Von Stillfried, Adolfo Farsari and Kusakabe Kimbei. Due to these factors, it is reasonable to conclude the album is likely a Tamamura Studio product dating from the 1890s to the 1900s.

After completing observations on this metallic photograph and comparing it to Mizuno’s patent; visually comparing the album cover and the image cropping to other similar examples; it appears that this photograph was created with Mizuno’s Photographic Maki-e process. It appears highly probable that this is an authentic mizunotype created to grace the front cover of a premium luxury souvenir album produced and sold by the Tamamura Studio between the early 1890s and late 1900s.

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