Friday, June 16, 2017

Masters of the silver age (1)

A snapshot history of mountain photography in Japan

Conveniently for historians, mountain photography in Japan sprang into being at the same moment as modern mountaineering. A photo of the Great Snow Valley on Shirouma, the White Horse Mountain, graced the very first issue of the new Japanese Alpine Club’s journal, published in April 1906.

Shirouma by Shimura Urei: as published in the Alpine Journal
The photographer, Shimura Urei (1874-1961), was the club’s 18th member, joining immediately after it was launched in the previous October, and remained closely associated all his life – after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, the club’s office was moved temporarily into his house.

Shimura Urei
Before retiring to Tokyo, Shimura was a teacher at the Nagano middle school. He started out using the school’s camera to record the alpine flowers and landscapes of that mountainous province until, tiring of this mediocre kit, he invested ¥110 – equivalent to two months’ salary or more – to buy himself a top-of-the-line Goertz Dagor lens. He also had to pay porters to carry his camera and tentage up into the mountains. More than one image was lost when the porters, impatient to see a real photograph, ripped open undeveloped plates.

Overcoming such tribulations, Shimura built up a valuable collection of pressed alpine plants that is still preserved, discovering in the process a new kind of flower on Shirouma. A photo of the same mountain was sent to the ubiquitous Walter Weston, now back in England, who used it to accompany an article that the mountaineering missionary published in the Alpine Journal edition of February 1906. Another of Shimura’s photos appeared in Weston’s second book about the Japanese mountains.

Snow valley by Shimura Urei
Shimura’s lengthy explorations of the Japan Alps get him a paragraph in Fukada Kyūya’s One Hundred Mountains of Japan, although more as a pioneer than as a photographer:

The first mountaineer to pass this way was Shimura Urei in the summer of 1907, approaching from Eboshi. As he stood on the summit, he wrote, "I saw a small pond below and to the south, for all the world like an eruption crater … this crater on Washiba is probably a surprise for the world." In that pioneering era, such unexpected discoveries were not uncommon in the Northern Alps. Today, mountaineering is much more convenient but it has lost this element of surprise and wonder. (Washiba-dake)

Many other members of the early Japanese Alpine Club, notably the scientists, took their cameras into the mountains. Glass slides were favoured, presumably for their scientific precision, by Tsujimoto Mitsumaru (1877-1940), who had won an international reputation for his discovery of squalene.

Rock shelter in the Northern Alps, by Tsujimoto Mitsumaru
Takeda Hisayoshi (1883-1972), a founder member who later authored the first guide to Japan’s alpine plants, took photos to document his botanical forays. As for his kit, a Goerz Roll-Tenax and a favourite Piccolette accompanied him on his second trip to the Oze marshes, in 1924, as well as three lenses, twenty-odd films and photographic plates.

Another JAC founder, Takano Takazō, the entomologist, collated eight collections of mountain photography under the series title of “High mountains, deep valleys” (高山深渓) between 1910 and 1917, assisted by a group of about 15 fellow enthusiasts. Meanwhile, Tanaka Kaoru (1898-1982) used his camera on his geological excursions, and Kanmuri Matsujirō (1883-1970) extensively photographed the Kurobe Valley, often using new-fangled film cameras for their lightness and convenience in that rugged terrain.

Hokari Misuo
One who stuck with traditional glass plates, for their artistic properties, was Hokari Misuo (1891-1966). An uomo universale of the Japan Northern Alps, Hokari’s life centred around Yari-ga-take, the so-called Matterhorn of Japan.

As mass mountaineering arrived in Japan, he opened the mountain’s first hut, in Yarisawa, in 1917 (Taishō 6) and a decade later, built another, on the col below the peak, which is still owned and operated by his descendants. He also wrote a biography of Banryū, the monk who first climbed Yari, a book that Fukada Kyūya later acclaimed as “masterly”.

Hokkari's original hut in Yarisawa
Although his equipment may have been old-style, there was nothing traditional about Hokari’s marketing. In 1921, he opened a gallery, the Hokari Shashinkan, in a decisive step away from the gentlemanly amateurism of the Japan Alpine Club. For Hokari looked to his photos for at least part of his living, like those other grand masters of black-and-white alpine photography, the Abraham brothers of Keswick, the Tairraz père et fils of Chamonix, Bradford Washburn and Jürgen Winkler.

The Taisho eruption of Yake-dake, by Hokkari Misuo

Particularly memorable are the prints showing the volcano of Yake-dake, both during and after the Taishō eruption of 1915 that created the eponymous pond. Many since Hokari’s day have photographed the mountain and its lakelet, but few to such effect.
Yake-dake after the eruption, by Hokari Misuo


Hokari's view camera

Next: How Japan's mountain photographers headed for the Himalaya

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