Class Room is holding an exhibition of early examples of Japanese photography taken between 1870 and 1912. Many images in the exhibition are albumen silver prints, the first commercially exploitable method for producing a photographic print on a paper base from a negative. It was a method that was developed following the discovery, in 1847, by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, that the albumen found in egg whites can be used to bind photographic chemicals to paper.

As early photographic methods produced monochrome images, they were often coloured by hand by the application of ink to the image. This practise began in Europe in 1839 and went on to gain considerable popularity in Japan in the 1860s despite the fact that photography was initially seen as an unwelcome symbol of westernisation and in Japanese society being photographed was largely unpopular.

Amongst the hand-coloured photographs included in this exhibition there are examples by Tamamura Kōzaburō (1856—1923) and Ogawa Kazumasa (1860 –1929) but for the majority of the images on display the creators are unknown. These photographs are important as they were taken at a time when Japan was undergoing tremendous change. The Meiji Period (1868 – 1912) followed a short civil war and the resignation of Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu. It signalled a restoration of complete power to the Imperial Family, the Emperor Meiji and the implementation of a system of government that was based on the government structure of the independent German state of Prussia. It transformed Japan forever. The Emperor and his parliament created a revolution that pushed Japan from being a pre-industrial feudal society ruled by warlords (Tokugawa Shogunate and the various Daimyō) towards becoming an industrial power worthy of a place on the world stage.

Prior to the advent of photography, woodblock or ukiyo-e had been the main way of depicting developments and life in Japan. In previous periods, many painters in Japan had also turned to ukiyo-e because the printed image was affordable to the public, whilst painting was extremely expensive. Print makers would create hundreds of thousands of copies and sell them often for the price of a bowl of rice (if I only had a time machine!).

However, in the face of early photography, printmakers feared becoming irrelevant, especially in relation to record keeping and journalism. They worked hard to capture the rapid change taking place in Japan at this time, including the introduction of railways to Japan, and the transformation of Tokyo by the introduction of various European styled buildings. Yet in doing so, they realised that they could not keep up with photography. During the Meiji period many aspiring print makers eventually abandoned the traditional art and turned to the new photographic methods. The ukiyo-e that subsequently emerged in the wake of the Meiji restoration were perceived as decedent, and lacking quality.

In the images displayed here, the relatively new practice of photography has been used to capture the traditional everyday life in Japan. In contrast, the prints that sit alongside them, that were produced around the same time by traditional woodblock artists Yōshū Chikanobu and Nagashima Shungyō, can be seen to look to the future and focus on the new Japan.