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Unknown Photographer
Welcome ceremony of two geishas
From the travel albums of Austrian singer Anton Schittenhelm (1849–1923)
Japan, c. 1880
Albumin print, 20,2 x 26,2 cm

After strict insular politics in Japan had reigned over the course of several centuries the USA asked Japan in a colonially offensive fashion to sign commercial treaties. In the wake of these changes the country opened itself to western progress. Since a change in power and the beginning of the Meji restoration from 1868, the development of Japan into an industrial nation went extremely fast. On the other hand the Japanese remained true to their cultural traditions: Photography was long seen as a sacrilege, it was feared that it was stealing people’s souls and western travellers were not allowed to take pictures.

Photography only started to establish itself around 1880 when Japanese culture started to adapt: Artificial settings in studios, a limited range of subjects of genre works, portraits and canonical landscape shots oriented themselves on the the Japanese Ukiyo-e, the colour wood cut. The most important reference to this was the colorization of the prints, anywhere else in the 19th century this would have been considered tasteless. It became a typical attribute of Japanese photography spreading to Europe over the travelling albums of European tourists. The elaborately painted albums themselves covered by carved lids were a popular souvenir from Japan.

WestLicht owns a large quantity of albumen prints from the travelling albums of tenor Anton Schnittenhelm, who was in the ensemble of the Viennese opera house. The photograph at hand shows two Japanese women during a staged welcome ceremony at a photo studio and stands out for its exquisite colour range in the colorized kimonos. Besides the deep bow, there are the preparations for tea brewing and the traditional present for the host lying in the foreground, typical for the polite greeting ceremony when visiting someone.

Marie Röbl, © WestLicht