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A Silver Mizunotype:

Lessons Learnt

by Celio H. Barreto, Part 4 of 4.

· Mizunotype,Photohistory,Photomicrography


In spite of it being hailed as Japan’s greatest contribution to photography in 1891, and receiving great accolades at exhibitions and commercial success, very little scholarship exists on this process or the photographer and inventor. Collecting institutions in general have considered Mizuno’s process as a decorative one, rather than as original photographic expression. It has thus been largely overlooked by art historians and this is reflected in the scant literature available.

Collectors and conservators on the other hand, are responsible for the bulk of knowledge we have on this process. It is when we see Mizuno’s metallic photographs as objects that their true uniqueness is revealed. The mizunotype's various parts link up to the greater story of photography. When we look at their materiality, we can see how his experimentations reflect the spirit of the age in the rapidly industrializing Japan of the 1890s. In fact, Mizuno’s photographs participated in the World Fairs in Chicago in 1893, Paris in 1900 and in St. Louis in 1904, where according to the evidence, they received prestigious recognition.

Mizuno successfully fused together the most sophisticated imaging technology of his day with the ancient art of maki-e. While other photographers around the world also experimented with dust-on gold photographs, Mizuno’s process would be forever linked with the golden age of Yokohama Shashin. In the West, the cheaper, faster and easier to produce gold photographs and orotones gained ground from about 1900, Edward S. Curtis being perhaps its most well known exponent. Mizuno’s process disappeared from the photography market sometime after the demise of the Japanese souvenir album in the first decade of the twentieth century. It is a complex, time consuming, specialized and expensive process which, however, would be preserved by his descendants in other applications well into the 1960s. As Mizuno stated in his patent, the process could work with any image that could be photographed with a glass plate negative.

The mizunotype's roots in maki-e lacquer cannot be stressed sufficiently. It is a true synthesis between Japanese and Western image making traditions and the complexity of both systems are combined in such a way as to create something greater than the sum of its parts, for one cannot exist without the other in this expression. I have the impression that one must be both a photographer and a lacquer artist in order to make a mizunotype.

It is wonderful then, that The Royal Ontario Museum posses not only an example of a rare silver mizunotype, but one made of a Kozaburo Tamamura image on the cover of one of his top-tier composite albums. While uncredited, the works by some of Yokohama’s most prestigious photographers, lacquer makers and illustrators are prominently featured in this object. It is a time capsule, and a sort of microcosm example of the state of photography and the market, the finesse of Japanese tourist photographs in the closing years of the Meiji Era. It is thus an object worthy of further specialized study.

Celio H. Barreto is an emerging Asian Art Collections Manager, Photographic Preservation Specialist, Photohistorian, Independent Curator of Photography, Photographica Collector, MultiMedia Art Maker, Avid Instagrammer, Deltiology enthusiast, and a member of the Photographic Historical Society of Canada. Barreto's FPPCM MA Thesis is titled Unfolding Margaret MacLean's Orihon-format Scrapbook in the Royal Ontario Museum Collection: a Focus on Context, Preservation and Access. He is co-founder and co-director of SoHo Art Gallery in Osaka, Japan (2007 - present). He lives in Toronto, Canada with his family.


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