In the 1870s, Japan was a place on the cusp of massive transition. Less than two decades after opening its doors to foreign trade, Western technologies were already making their mark on the local culture. The introduction of photography signaled a major shift in how the outside world saw Japan, and in how Japan saw itself.
Suzuki Shin’ichi (1835–1919) was of the first generation of homegrown professional photographers in Japan. After cutting his chops apprenticing at the studio of Shimooka Renjō, Shin’ichi was commissioned in 1872 to produce a series of photographs for The Far East, a Yokohama-based expat rag specializing in exoticized content for a Western readership. His assignment was to portray the traditional Japanese rural lifestyle—a point of fascination for the magazine’s audience—and to do so in hand-colored black-and-white images, which reinforced the vibrancy of a Japan untouched by outside influence. Keenly aware of his audience’s nostalgic proclivities, Shin’ichi would go on to produce similar photos to sell as tourist souvenirs in Yokohama, again emphasizing the idealized Japanese existence which was quickly fading from everyday life.
By the time of the photographer’s death in 1918, Japan had undergone momentous shifts in its society and politics. The formerly isolated island state had emerged as a world power and a cosmopolitan center of East Asian commerce and industry, and the traditional lifestyle Shin’ichi worked to preserve was being rapidly supplanted by Westernized standards of dress and urbanization.
In later years, Shin’ichi was honored with many awards for his work, including a request to photograph Emperor Meiji and his wife. Meiji had initiated many of the changes which set Japan on its path to modernization. The emperor must have been pleased to trust his likeness to the sympathetic eye of a contemporary who truly understood the changing times they had both lived through.