What did Japanese art do to photography: Part 1
Japanese woodblock prints
Have you ever wondered why photographers take pictures of umbrellas? You only have to look online for a few minutes to see that umbrellas seem to make good subjects, but why? Why are photographers so interested in making pictures with umbrellas? The introduction of the umbrella into Western art came from Japan back in the 1800s. In this short series, we will look at the influence that Japanese woodblock artists had on Europe and how the influence of the east on the west slowly made it way to photography.
The accidental art
Photography can be an accidental art. Things we did not see pop into the frame all the time. Half of the challenge of photography is seeing everything before we push the shutter button. This is no easy task. As a result elements in a picture can touch on history without us ever knowing it happened. If the history of art is unknown to us, then we run the risk of trying to say something new, only to discover that someone has already said the exact same thing. The best way to avoid this is to find the roots of a trend and understand where it originated.
To get at the root of why the Japanese artist depicts umbrellas so frequently, all you would need to do is read a little Japanese fiction or haiku. The Japanese love the changes of weather. From rain to snow, to sleet and hail, there is a certain environmental sensitivity that the Japanese enjoy. So it is no surprise that when artists wanted to depict scenes from their stories and imagination they would choose to include objects like umbrellas. Add to that their long tradition of hand-made umbrellas and it becomes clear why umbrellas made their way into woodblock prints. But how did they get from Japan to Europe?
For one thousand years, the umbrella was nearly absent from Western Art. Have you ever seen a Crucifixion in the rain? Probably not. European artists were neither hired to paint nor painted many pictures with umbrellas. There were a few here and there, but on the whole it was not a popular motif. This all changed in the 1800’s when European merchants brought back goods from Japan. Enclosed in the shipping containers were Japanese woodblock prints. The prints, which were sometimes used as wrapping paper for more expensive goods, caught the attention of painters.
The simplicity of the prints, their colors and motifs fascinated European artists. It opened up an entire chapter for artists. Heavily influenced were painters like Gustave Caillebotte, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh.
How did they use it
Ernest Hemingway once advised writers to “Get the f-ing weather in the story.” But how do you get rain into a painting? It is not the easiest weather condition to paint. It is certainly more challenging than sun or snow. But the umbrella and a few puddles allows a painter to give the illusion of rain quickly and effectively without painting a million rain drops.
What does an umbrella do?
An umbrella in a picture can have a number of useful functions. You may have stumbled upon these accidentally, but if not, keep them in mind the next time you see an umbrella on the street.
- Mood: The umbrella gives the feeling of rain when we see it.
- Geometry: In order for an umbrella to work, it must have good geometry. It is all part of its design. And good design inside of your picture will be a plus.
- Scale: If you photograph someone at a distance the umbrella draws extra attention to them and can help your subject stand out in a field.
- Light: Since umbrellas have a very thin outer skin they can either diffuse or catch light easily. This can soften the light on your subject or highlight the shape of the umbrella if it was illuminated by street lights at night.
Who uses this?
In short, everyone…while browsing Magnum Photo for a few examples, it appeared that every single member of Magnum has pictures with umbrellas. Some better than others, but as an object, the umbrella is an eye catching piece that can add a level of detail to your photographs.
Now it is your turn…
The next time the weather report calls for rain, remember that also means it calls for umbrellas. What may be one person’s rainy day might be a field day of shooting for you. And if you are not sure how to capture a person with an umbrella, browse the woodblocks of artists like Hiroshige, Hokusai, Hasui Kawase or Hiroshi Yoshida and see how they used the umbrella as a great addition to their pictures.