Nov 292015
 

What did Japanese art do to photography: Part 1

Japanese woodblock prints

The Umbrella

Tennoji Temple in Snow. 1927 © Kawase Hasui

Tennoji Temple in Snow. 1927 © Kawase Hasui

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.

3 Zojoji in Snow © Kawase Hasui

© Hiroshige

© Hiroshige

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.

Hiroshige (left) and Van Gogh (right)

Hiroshige (left) and Van Gogh (right)

Woman with umbrella © Claude Monet

Woman with umbrella © Claude Monet

La Courtisane © Vincent Van Gogh

La Courtisane © Vincent Van Gogh

Japanese masters

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?

JAPAN. Kyoto. 1951. © Werner Bischof

JAPAN. Kyoto. 1951. © Werner Bischof

JAPAN. Tokyo. Courtyard of the Meiji shrine. 1951. © Werner Bischof

JAPAN. Tokyo. Courtyard of the Meiji shrine. 1951. © Werner Bischof

The Umbrella

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.

China. Hong Kong.Time square. 2015 © Bruno Barbey

China. Hong Kong.Time square. 2015 © Bruno Barbey

Kyoto, Japan. © Erich Hartmann

Kyoto, Japan. © Erich Hartmann

 Australia. New South Wales. Sydney. © Ian Berry

Australia. New South Wales. Sydney. © Ian Berry

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.

A day of rain in Paris. 1877. Gustauve Caillebotte

A day of rain in Paris. 1877. Gustauve Caillebotte

BANGLADESH. 1983. © Steve McCurry

BANGLADESH. 1983. © Steve McCurry

 INDIA. Gora. 1983. © Steve McCurry

INDIA. Gora. 1983. © Steve McCurry

ECUADOR. Mushullacta. 2002.  © Alex Webb

ECUADOR. Mushullacta. 2002. © Alex Webb

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.
INDIA. 1996.  A man pushing a cart of bananas.

INDIA. 1996. A man pushing a cart of bananas.

INDIA. 1983. A girl walking past with an umbrella. © Steve McCurry

INDIA. 1983. A girl walking past with an umbrella. © Steve McCurry

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 its your turn...

Now its your turn…

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.

Best-AM

 

  18 Responses to “What did Japanese art do to photography: Part 1”

  1. Superb article.

  2. A lot of posters from the London transport in the last century have also made good use of umbrellas.

  3. You’re right, umbrellas are good; but rain not essential:

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/ammgramm/21354980480/in/photostream/lightbox/

    ;)

  4. I enjoy these articles so very much! Rain in the forecast for the next 2 days…I’ll be looking for umbrellas.

  5. I love this post and not only because I adore (and collect) yukio-e. You’ve inspired me to go in search of Japanese landscapes online now :-) I really enjoy reading your posts and watching your videos. Can’t wait for the next ones…

  6. As always, a great article Adam. Like many photographers, I have my own photograph with an umbrella for all the reasons that you outlined in the article.

    Rob

    • Hi Rob,

      Great to hear from you…reminds me, dont I owe you an email?

      And yes, we’ve all got our “walking man” and “umbrella” shots just to name a few. Its cool that we took our “walking man” in Matera side by side. Good memories.

      Best-AM

  7. Great work Adam. Your explanations are helpful and inspire me to continue to see the world differently again. I look forward to get out in the weather changes. For now, it will be umbrellas in the sun.

    Just an observation on the last two McCurry photos (the three blue doors), they are labeled INDIA 1983 and INDIA 1996 but I think they are taken the same day (maybe even within a few minutes of each other). The patterns on the walls and doors, the erosion of the sidewalk, and even what I can see of the vegetation and shadows appear to match.

    Thanks again for the art and photography lessons. I admire your work and appreciate you sharing so openly.

    • Thank you Verne,

      Glad you enjoyed the article.

      Regarding the dates, they were sourced from Magnum Photos. It is what they have listed. I agree with
      you, they seem much closer in date. But it is what the caption listed, so I left it as is.

      Not the first time I’ve come across a credit typo on Magnum, but then again, it never bothered me much.
      Im equally guilty of caption errors.

      Thank you for the close reading : )

      Best-AM

  8. Dear Adam,
    when I read your article “What did Japanese art do to photography” and when I saw Hiroshima and van Gogh close to each other, I remembered the exception I visited at Museum Folkwang (Essen/Germany) in 2014 (here: https://www.museum-folkwang.de/en/news/exhibitions/archive/japanese-inspirations.html),
    so that might be of interest to you in case you haven’t looked into it.
    Youtube also has a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54MKN9zhEfA
    There is also a book coming with the exhibitio: http://www.amazon.de/Monet-Gauguin-Gogh-Inspiration-Japan/dp/3869308419

    Kind regards
    –Uli

    • Dear Uli,

      Thank you for the links, they sound very interesting. A One on One student of mine recently told me about the show in Essen.
      But did not see the YouTube link.

      Thanks again!

      Best-AM

  9. Thank you for your post. Although I am not a photographer, I often come to your website and learn so much. Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you Robert,

      It is very nice to hear that the site is interesting for non-photographers. I’d be happy to keep up for you.

      Best-AM

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