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August 15, 2020

Rare Photograph of a True Samurai Taken by Felice Beato, circa 1864-65

Italian–British photographer Felice Beato (1832 – 29 January 1909) was one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia and one of the first war photographers. He lived and worked in Japan from 1862 until about 1885, and dedicated himself to the comprehensive documentation of every aspect of the country, which had newly opened to the West.

This straightforward but intense study of an anonymous samurai dates from early in Beato’s period in Japan, and prior to the devastating fire that destroyed his studio and most of Yokohama in October 1866.

After 1615, when relative peace reigned in Japan and the importance of martial arts declined, most sumurai-the top of Japan’s social hierarchy during the Edo period (1603-1868)-became bureaucrats, teachers, or artists. Just a few years after Beato made this photograph, the feudal period in Japan ended with the Meiji Restoration. And after more than eight centuries of military leadership, the samurai class was officially abolished.

Felice Beato settled in Yokohama after documenting the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny with his brother-in-law James Robertson, and, on his own, the Second Opium War in China in 1860. Beato was persuaded to come to Japan by Charles Wirgman, a foreign correspondent with the British press and founder of Japan Punch, the first English-language magazine published in Japan. Beato and Wirgman were partners from 1863 to 1869, when Beato established his own firm. The studio remained active until 1877, when Beato sold it and all its contents to the Austrian photographer Baron Raimund von Stillfried-Rathenitz.

Between 1863 and 1877, Beato created the first substantial photographic record of Japan available to Europeans. His work spanned the period when Japan was emerging from the feudal, non-industrial society governed by the Shogun to the modern, industrial power ruled by the Meiji emperor. Thus Beato’s major publication, issued in 1868 in two volume entitled Native Types and Views of Japan, as well as his series Photographic Views and Costumes of Japan, document the last remnants of traditional Japan.


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