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Japan Albums ©Felice Beato 1850s
Japan Albums ©Felice Beato 1850s | Image source internet

Felice Beato

Felice Beato (1832 – 1909), also known as Felix Beato, was an Italian–British photographer. He was one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia and one of the first war photographers. He is noted for his genre works, portraits, and views and panoramas of the architecture and landscapes of Asia and the Mediterranean region. Beato’s travels gave him the opportunity to create images of countries, people, and events that were unfamiliar and remote to most people in Europe and North America. His work provides images of such events as the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the Second Opium War and represents the first substantial body of photojournalism. He influenced other photographers, and his influence in Japan, where he taught and worked with numerous other photographers and artists, was particularly deep and lasting.

Little is certain about Felice Beato’s early development as a photographer, though it is said that he bought his first and only lens in Paris in 1851. Felice Beato was the first photographer to devote himself entirely to photographing in Asia and the Near East. He photographed in Japan, India, Athens, Constantinople, the Crimea, and Palestine. In February 1858 Beato arrived in Calcutta and began traveling throughout Northern India to document the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. During this time he produced possibly the first-ever photographic images of corpses. It is believed that for at least one of his photographs taken at the palace of Sikandar Bagh in Lucknow he had the skeletal remains of Indian rebels disinterred or rearranged to heighten the photograph’s dramatic impact. He settled in Yokohama and from 1863 to 1877 made hundreds of ethnographic portraits and genre scenes in Japan.

Beato’s photographic career was also long affiliated with images of war. However, the greater part of Beato’s work in Japan contrasted strongly with his earlier work in India and China, which “had underlined and even celebrated conflict and the triumph of British imperial might”. Aside from the Portrait of Prince Kung, any appearances of Chinese people in Beato’s earlier work had been peripheral (minor, blurred, or both) or as corpses. With the exception of his work in September 1864 as an official photographer on the British military expedition to Shimonoseki, Beato was eager to portray Japanese people, and did so uncondescendingly, even showing them as defiant in the face of the elevated status of westerners. Beato was very active while in Japan. He was the first photographer in Japan to sell albums of his works. It was probably Beato who introduced to photography in Japan the double concept of views and costumes/manners, an approach common in the photography of the Mediterranean. By 1868 Beato had readied two volumes of photographs, “Native Types”, containing 100 portraits and genre works, and “Views of Japan”, containing 98 landscapes and cityscapes. Many of the photographs in Beato’s albums were hand-colored, a technique that in his studio successfully applied the refined skills of Japanese watercolorists and woodblock printmakers to European photography. He photographed the Opium War in China in 1860 and the Sudanese colonial wars in 1885. He eventually quit photography and opened a furniture and curio business in Burma.

Photographs of the 19th century often now show the limitations of the technology used, yet Beato managed to successfully work within and even transcend those limitations. He predominantly produced albumen silver prints from wet collodion glass-plate negatives. Beato pioneered and refined the techniques of hand-coloring photographs and making panoramas. Beato’s colored landscapes are delicate and naturalistic. His colored portraits, more strongly colored than the landscapes, are excellent and invigorating. As well as providing views in color, Beato worked to represent very large subjects in a way that gave a sense of their vastness. Throughout his career, Beato’s work is marked by spectacular panoramas, which he produced by carefully making several contiguous exposures of a scene and then joining the resulting prints together, thereby re-creating the expansive view.

Published on February 11, 2021
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