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Images of Japan. Exhibition section on souvenir photography of the late 19th Century

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The European perception of Japan was also influenced by souvenir photography of the late 19th century. Produced by Western photographers for travelers, these photographs produced imaginary “pictures” of Japan that still have an impact today. They were often staged in photo studios and repeatedly showed similar motifs, which, from a European perspective, emphasized the unique and “foreign” aspects of Japanese culture.

© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
Section of the exhibition on souvenir photography

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Paravents served as props in the photographs: like on a stage, young women – mostly geisha – portray “Japanese” life in front of them, sewing, dancing, or doing their hair. In the photographs, they are used to create spaces with specific female connotations. There is something voyeuristic about what is seen in the pictures. In the photo of two young women looking at souvenir photographs, the process of viewing becomes (unintentionally) the actual subject – their gaze on what is “their own” makes us aware of the Western view of the “other.”



The fan is a souvenir especially for travelers from Europe or North America. In pictures it is part of an often erotically charged game of revealing and concealing. Besides actors, it is mainly courtesans – women who offer cultural entertainment and sexual services – who hold it in their hands. Instead of hiding something behind itself, however, this fan shows a souvenir photograph by Kimbei Kusakabe, one of the first Japanese photographers in Yokohama.The hairpin with the portrait of a woman is also a souvenir.

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Fan with a photograph by Kusakabe Kimbei (1841-1932) ("Geisha writing a letter", c. 1885), n.d., textile, wood, 61 × 23 × 1.5 cm, donated in 1908 from private collection, Herrnhut Museum of Ethnology, Herrnhut, inv. no. 78861 a,b

Hairpin with leaf fan, on it a photograph with the portrait of a woman, before 1890, bamboo stick with paper, donated 2003 from private collection, Dresden Museum of Ethnology, Dresden, Inv. No. 77394

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"Hanami" installation by Rainer Kaufmann

In the spring, the cherry trees on Johannisplatz in front of the GRASSI Museum are in blossom – reason for many people to photograph each other in front of the pink blossoms. In Japan, the season of the cherry blossom (sakura) marks the beginning of spring, and the annual Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates the beauty of nature. With Hanami, Rainer Kaufmann brings this custom into the museum. The object, built from real cherry wood branches and false blossoms, is not only clichéd, but is also a symbol of wonder and admiration for this aesthetic phenomenon.

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Timo Herbst

Rhythm Analysis

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