Photography for Everyone
The Cultural Lives of Cameras and Consumers in Early Twentieth-Century Japan
Kerry Ross



During a three-week visit to Japan in 1920, George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak, remarked that the Japanese people were “almost as addicted to the Kodak habit as ourselves.”1 Eastman’s visit to Japan was planned and paid for by some of Japan’s leading economic experts and proponents of international cooperation, including Shibusawa Eiichi and Megata Tanetomo. It was an unofficial trip to help secure more friendly ties between the two countries. Along with Eastman, ten other men were invited, including bankers, journalists, and Lyman Gage, former secretary of the Treasury.2 Eastman was a guest of Baron Mitsui, who hosted Eastman at his Takanawa estate,3 and treated Eastman to a ride through the imperial palace gardens in a Cunningham car, coincidentally produced in Rochester, New York, for the Japanese emperor, “with the imperial chrysanthemum symbol having been woven into the upholstery.”4 According to his biographer, Elizabeth Brayer, George Eastman Honorary Scholar, Eastman was impressed with the Japanese people because they, like him, “had the ability to assimilate the ideas of others ‘to the point of genius’ and wondered if that was what ‘has made her the powerful nation she is today.’5

During his trip, Eastman paid special attention to the thriving commercial world of photography. His handlers, most notably Shibusawa, had planned a packed itinerary, but as often as he could, Eastman wandered about the commercial districts of Tokyo visiting photographers’ studios and dealers’ shops, which one reporter noted numbered between six hundred and seven hundred in the city.6 Among the shops that he visited formally was Konishi Roku, today’s Konica Minolta, located in Tokyo’s bustling financial district of Nihonbashi. On 26 April 1920, Eastman toured Konishi Roku’s department store for photography; was greeted by the company’s founder, Konishi Rokuzaemon; and was photographed once alone and once alongside Rokuzaemon in the store’s state-of-the-art portrait studio.7 Although Konishi Roku had been selling Kodak products for decades, this was the founder’s first visit to the shop.

What astonished Eastman during his visit to Japan was the sheer quantity of photographic goods available to ordinary consumers. While he certainly had access to sales reports from the various distributors of Kodak products, it is unlikely that he would have had detailed prior knowledge of the enormous variety of retail options for photographic products available throughout Japan and its colonies, including Taiwan and Korea. By 1920, Tokyo’s map was dotted with a great number of shops selling new products, but the city also was home to a vast used-camera market, which certainly made up a good percentage of the “hundreds of shops” that Eastman did not have time to see. In fact, by the time of Eastman’s visit, the business of selling photographic products in Japan was already five decades old.

This book recounts the untold story of how ordinary Japanese people in the early twentieth century made photography a part of everyday life, using products produced by Kodak or, even more likely, by Japan’s then thriving domestic photography industry. Such an endeavor necessitates looking at the quotidian activities that went into the entire picture-making process, activities not typically understood as photographic in nature, such as shopping for a camera, reading photography magazines and how-to books, participating in camera clubs and contests, and even preserving one’s pictures in albums. These very activities, promoted and sponsored by the industry, embedded the camera in everyday life as both consumer object and documentation device, linking photographic technology to the practical understanding of modernity and making it the irresistible enterprise that Eastman encountered in 1920.

Historiography of Early Twentieth-Century Japanese Photography

The overwhelming focus of historical scholarship on early twentieth-century Japanese photography has concerned the development of art photography. Artistic photography in Japan took off at the turn of the twentieth century, in part spurred by a vigorous debate among photographers over the best uses of photography. On one side were those who advocated photography’s utilitarian and practical potential, while on the other were those who promoted its aesthetic possibilities.8 Those looking to establish photography as an artistic practice struggled to “divorce photography from the realm of technology and establish it as a legitimate art form equal in status to painting.”9 Writers took up the theme of the aesthetic potential of photography in a growing number of journals dedicated to the art and technique of photography. These journals also published the artistic work of amateur photographers, making concrete examples of art photography available to a wider audience and thus legitimating the techniques.10 But, as Mikiko Hirayama reminds us, proponents of the artistic relevance of photography also had to struggle against the predominant aesthetic norms of staged and staid studio photography, which “was still considered as a form of business, and photographers as artisans.”11

Pictorialism, the first major aesthetic movement in Japanese photography, was adopted by the leading practitioners of art photography. Classic pictorialism in photography used techniques such as painting on the negative or positive, soft-focus lenses, and textured papers to create a romantic image.12 In pictorialist photography, artists used the medium to experiment with new aesthetic forms, much like writers were beginning to experiment with expressionism in literature and painting: “This [photographic] work no longer imitated paintings, rather it demonstrated that photography could address the same kinds of themes as paintings yet retain an individual expression that reflected the inner dimensions of the artist.”13

The artistic exploration of new photographic aesthetics, especially forms that could speak to the experience of disjuncture and alienation of urban life following the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1 September 1923, marked the turn toward modernism in art photography. For many photographers, the romanticism of pictorialism could no longer appropriately capture the kinetic and sometimes destructive force of the metropolis. From this perspective, pictorialism possessed an “old-fashioned aesthetic consciousness” that could not keep pace with contemporary changes in everyday life.14 Modernist photography of this period was heavily influenced by the work of Bauhaus and European avant-garde photographers like Lazslo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray and new forms of photography like the photogram and photo-montage. The images of Japan’s leading modernist photographers, such as those by Nakayama Iwata (1895–1949) and Koishi Kiyoshi (1908–1957), appeared in new photojournals like Asahi kamera and Fuototaimusu. Kimura Sen’ichi, editor of the monthly Fuototaimusu, was committed to introducing readers to shinkō shashin, or “new photography,” the term used to differentiate modernist photography from pictorialism.15

Perhaps the most influential publication of the period, and one of the most important contributions to modernism in Japanese photography, was Kōga.16 In May 1932, Nakayama Iwata, Nojima Yasuzō, and Kimura Ihei (1901–1974) produced the first issue of the small-circulation journal that published arguably some of Japan’s most canonical images and essays of the 1930s.17 Ina Nobuo’s oft-cited article “Return to Photography” was the lead essay in the first issue. This article, in which Ina presses photographers to embrace the aesthetics of the machine and break free from pictorialism—the “humble slave of painting [kaiga no ‘kensonnaru’ dorei]”—became the manifesto of new photographic aesthetics in the 1930s.18

The late 1920s and early 1930s also marked the emergence of mass consumerism and the rise of a middle class made up of salaried employees who had unprecedented time and money to spend on new products and pastimes. In this context, photography influenced how products were marketed and consumed. The new professional field of commercial photography helped bring the modernist aesthetic beyond small-circulation magazines and galleries and into the homes of middle-class consumers through new packaging designs and advertising campaigns.19 The modernist aesthetics that informed art and commercial advertising photography also set the tone for propaganda photography, which had become the essential means of communicating Japan’s wartime activities to audiences on the home front. From the mid-1930s, commercial photography studios like Nihon Kōbō (Japan Atelier, known as Kokusai Hōdō Kōgei from 1939) were increasingly subject to government control. The large-format magazine Nippon was inaugurated in the autumn of 1934 by Natori Yōnosuke (1910–1961) as a “cultural propaganda organ aimed at foreign audiences in order to strengthen diplomatic policy.”20 Perhaps the most stunning use of modernist aesthetics for the purpose of propaganda culminated in the large-format graphic magazine FRONT launched in 1942 soon after the beginning of the Pacific War. Among the magazine’s staff were photographer Kimura Ihei and graphic designer Hara Hiromu (1903–1986), who, like many of the cohorts from the commercial photography studios, “quickly revealed the conservative uses to which the ‘modern’ or ‘avant-garde’ could be put.”21

In the immediate postwar period, photographic realism was taken up by the prewar veterans and a new generation of photographers. Certainly for photographers who had participated in prewar propaganda projects like Nippon and FRONT, realism in the form of unadulterated, objective images was seen as a necessary aesthetic antidote to combat the understanding of photography as an instrument of war: “In essence, the goal was to grasp the subject directly without subjective interpretation, a concept that can be considered a reconfirmation of the function of the photograph as documentation.”22 Debates on the exact nature of photographic realism, however, appeared in the photographic press, which reemerged rapidly with prewar magazines such as Kamera and Asahi kamera relaunching in the immediate postwar years.23

.   .   .

While the development of Japanese artistic photography has received an enormous amount of scholarly and critical attention, that body of work represents a mere fraction of the photographic archive. It takes only one visit to a used bookstore, the library shelves of a major university, or the collections of a camera-related organization to see that the majority of photographic products and publications in the first half of the twentieth century were marketed to the ordinary photographer as essential possessions of modern everyday life. In fact, “photography” as it was understood by most Japanese people was an amalgamation of disparate practices shaped as profoundly by retailing and consumption as by aesthetic movements and gallery exhibitions. Yet historians of photography rarely pay attention to the role of the typical middle-class consumer in photographic practice, and scholars accounting for the history of the camera industry have routinely ignored the significant role companies such as Konishi Roku and Asanuma Shōkai played as arbiters of middle-class taste.24 But it is the interaction between these very parties—ordinary photographers and the leading camera brands—that is critical to an understanding of the popularization of photography in the early twentieth century, necessitating that we take into account the broader field of photographic activities, including the production and sales of cameras and film, the circulation of knowledge and information about photography, and the use of those products in everyday life.


1. Elizabeth Brayer, George Eastman: A Biography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 481.

2. Ibid., 479.

3. “Zappō,” Shashin geppō 25, no. 5 (May 1920): 48.

4. Brayer, Eastman, 481.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. “Zappō,” Shashin geppō 25, no. 5 (May 1920): 47. That portrait of Eastman was published as a gravure in this issue.

8. The rise of artistic photography from the late nineteenth century parallels the rise of the academic field of anthropology and the use of photography in anthropological studies of Japanese colonial territories. Outside the history of the development of art photography, research on the production of photographic knowledge regarding Japan’s imperial possessions is a rapidly growing body of scholarship within the study of the history of Japanese photography. For example, see Paul D. Barclay, “Peddling Postcards and Selling Empire: Image-Making in Taiwan under Japanese Colonial Rule,” Japanese Studies 30, no. 1 (2010): 81–110; David Fedman, “Triangulating Chōsen: Maps, Mapmaking, and the Land Survey in Colonial Korea,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 1, no. 1 (2012): 205–234; Iizawa Kōtarō, “Jinrui gakusha no kamera ai: Torii Ryūzō,” in Nihon-shashinshi o aruku (Shinchōsha, 1992), 91–102; Gyewon Kim, “Unpacking the Archive: Ichthyology, Photography, and the Archival Record in Japan and Korea,” positions 18, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 51–87; Satō Kenji, “Ehagaki no naka no jinruigaku,” in Kankō jinruigaku, ed. Yamashita Shinji (Shin’yōsha, 1996), 45–53; Ka F. Wong, “Entanglements of Ethnographic Images: Torii Ryūzō’s Photographic Record of Taiwan Aborigines (1896–1900),” Japanese Studies 24, no. 3 (2004): 283–299.

9. Mikiko Hirayama, “‘Elegance’ and ‘Discipline’: The Significance of Sino-Japanese Aesthetic Concepts in the Critical Terminology of Japanese Photography, 1903–1923,” in Reflecting Truth: Japanese Photography in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere and Mikiko Hirayama (Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2004), 98. This debate is thoroughly covered in two pieces by Iizawa Kōtarō, “Nihon no ‘Geijutsu shashin’ ga hajimatta,” in Kamera omoshiro monogatari, ed. Asahi Shinbunsha (Asahi Shinbunsha, 1988), 48–53, and “‘Geijutsu-ha’ to ‘Kikaiteki shabutsu-ha,’” in “Geijutsu shashin” to sono jidai (Heibonsha, 1986), 24–33. See also Kaneko Ryūichi, “The Origins and Development of Japanese Art Photography,” in The History of Japanese Photography, ed. Anne Tucker et al. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 104–113.

10. From the turn of the century, revolutionary printing technologies allowed for the reproduction of photographs in newspapers and magazines on a mass scale. For a detailed discussion of the advances in reprographic technologies and how those advances ignited the publication of images in magazines and newspapers, see John Clark, “Indices of Modernity: Changes in Popular Reprographic Representation,” in Being Modern in Japan: Culture and Society from the 1910s to the 1930s, ed. Elsie Tipton and John Clark (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000), 25–49.

11. Hirayama, “‘Elegance’ and ‘Discipline,’” 101.

12. See especially Iizawa, “Geijutsu shashin” to sono jidai; and Kaneko, “Japanese Photography in the Early Twentieth Century,” in Modern Photography in Japan, 1915–1940, ed. Ansel Adams Center (San Francisco: The Friends of Photography, 2001), n.p., and “Nihon pikutoriarizumu shashin to sono shūhen: Kakō sareta kindai,” in Nihon kindai shashin no seiritsu: Kantō daishinsai kara Shinju-wan made, 1923–1941–nen, ed. Kashiwagi Hiroshi, Kaneko Ryūichi, and Itō Shunji (Seikyūsha, 1987), 9–38; see also Kaneko, “The Origins and Development of Japanese Art Photography,” 100–141; Philip Charrier, “Nojima Yasuzō’s Primitivist Eye: ‘Nude’ and ‘Natural’ in Early Japanese Art Photography,” Japanese Studies 26, no. 1 (2006): 47–68; Fuku Noriko, Shinzo and Roso Fukuhara: Photographs by Ginza Modern Boys 1913–1941 (SEPIA International Incorporated, 2000); Ozawa Kenji, ed., Nihon shashin senshū, vol. 2, Geijutsu shashin no keifu (Shogakukan, 1986).

13. Kaneko, “The Origins and Development of Japanese Art Photography,” 102.

14. Iizawa Kōtarō et al., eds., Nihon no shashinka bekkan: Nihon shashin-shi gaisetsu (Iwanami Shoten, 1999), 46.

15. Ibid., 47.

16. For the significance of this journal to modernism in Japanese photography, see Iizawa, Shashin ni kaere: “Kōga” no jidai (Heibonsha, 1988). Iizawa’s book includes reprints of some of the magazine’s seminal articles, photographs, and an extended history of the entire Kōga enterprise, including biographies of the main contributors: Nojima, Nakayama, Kimura, and Ina Nobuo (1898–1978). In 2005, Iizawa and Kaneko edited a slightly altered version of “Kōga” no jidai with two new analytical essays, one each by Iizawa and Kaneko, in Nihon no shashin-shi no shihō, bekkan: Kōga no kessakushū (Kokusho Kankōkai, 2005).

17. Ina joined Nojima, Nakayama, and Kimura on the editorial staff beginning with the second issue.

18. Kerry Ross, “Returning to Photography: Ina Nobuo and Real Photography in 1930s Japan” (Master’s thesis, Columbia University, 1997), 10–11.

19. Gennifer Weisenfeld has shown how companies like Kao and Shiseidō were instrumental in using photography to help create the context for Japanese visual modernity. See especially Weisenfeld, “‘From Baby’s First Bath’: Kaō Soap and Modern Japanese Commercial Design,” Art Bulletin 86, no. 3 (2004): 573–598, and “Selling Shiseido: Cosmetics Advertising & Design in Early 20th-Century Japan,” MIT Visualizing Cultures, 2010,

20. Kaneko Ryūichi, “Realism and Propaganda: The Photographer’s Eye Trained on Society,” in Tucker et al., The History of Japanese Photography, 191. See also Kashiwagi Hiroshi, Shōzō no naka no kenryoku: Kindai Nihon no gurafuizumu wo yomu (Heibonsha, 1987), 9–65; Hasegawa Akira, “‘Hōdō shashin’ no yukue,” in Kashiwagi, Kaneko, and Itō, Nihon kindai shashin no seiritsu, 161–189; Natori Yōnosuke, Ishikawa Yasumasa, and Nihon Shashinka Kyōkai, Hōdō shashin no seishun jidai: Natori Yōnosuke to nakamatachi (Kōdansha, 1991).

21. John Dower, “Ways of Seeing, Ways of Remembering: The Photography of Prewar Japan,” in A Century of Japanese Photography, ed. Japan Photographer’s Association (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971), 20.

22. Iizawa Kōtarō, “The Evolution of Postwar Photography,” in Tucker et al., The History of Japanese Photography, 211–212. See also Iizawa, Sengo shashin nōto: Shashin wa nani wo hyōgen shite kita ka (Chūkō Shinsho, 1993).

23. For an illuminating dissection of this debate, see Julia Thomas, “Power Made Visible: Photography and Postwar Japan’s Elusive Reality,” Journal of Asian Studies 67, no. 2 (May 2008): 365–394.

24. The archives of Konishi Roku provide the basis for an exhaustive account of the rise of the company and is richly documented in Konishi Roku Shashin Kōgyō Kabushiki Kaisha Shashi Hensan-shitsu, ed., Shashin to tomo ni hyakunen (Konishi Roku Shashin Kōgyō Kabushiki Kaisha, 1973). Comparable, though less voluminous, company histories have been published for Asanuma Shōkai, Canon, and Nikon. For a rare exception to this characterization in the field of American history, see Nancy Martha West, Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000). Reese Jenkins provides an in-depth account of the early history of the camera industry in the United States, including Kodak, in his Images and Enterprise: Technology and the American Photographic Industry, 1839 to 1925 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975).