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◌  Hiroshige as a photographer

13 August 2009

Hiroshige is one of my favorite photographers, which is a little weird because as far as I know he never made any photos. He might never even have seen one – he died before the Meiji Restoration. But his prints, I think, are photographic in delightful ways that many photos aren’t.

Part of this is just the ukiyo-e genre, which favored relatively candid and everyday subjects, and often came in series. But as a ukiyo-e artist, Hiroshige is only one of several favorites (among, say, Utamaro, Sharaku, and Hokusai; the much later shin hanga artists Kawase Hasui and Tsuchiya Koitsu don’t count). I enjoy ukiyo-e in itself, is what I’m trying to say, not as a landing in some ascent-of-man stairway that representative art took to arrive at photography. But the idea of Hiroshige as a photographer always comes to mind when I see his prints.

Check me on this. The Library of Congress’s browsing system is kind of a disaster (lots of POST and tempfiles), but this might work: start with a search for Andō Hiroshige, click preview images, and browse at random. Aren’t many of these using idioms more photographic than painterly? I don’t have the art history vocabulary I need for this. But take, for example, Pilgrims ascending snow-covered hillside toward temple at summit (I’ll be using the LOC’s description-names):

Pilgrims ascending snow-covered hillside toward temple at summit

This looks cropped. In other words, the composition depends on the framing. Many ukiyo-e artists used hairline frames or no frames at all, and came up with ingeneous ways to give the impression of a composition floating in nothing, but Hiroshige used the frame to make his pictures work. Chopping off the temple in the upper right, for example, wouldn’t fly without the heavy border, and (more subtly perhaps) the overall slope and lean would look uncomfortable if it weren’t visually contained. His consistency of detail across the frame is normal in photography, of course, but unusual in a lot of painting (outside comics and stuff I’ll mention below).

We can contrast this with Hokusai, who was also a visual genius but in a much more painterly way. You’ll sometimes see his famous wave cropped down, for example, and often it still looks good, but it’s hard to see a sub-rectangle you could pull out of any Hiroshige print that wouldn’t completely fall apart. He relies on the whole frame. His triptychs are some of my favorites partly because they play on this by looking at first as though each frame could stand alone.

This ties into his willingness to occlude. For an extreme example, take what I think is a relatively weak one of the Hundred famous views of Edo: Distant view of Kinryūzan Temple and Azuma Bridge:

Distant view of Kinryūzan Temple and Azuma Bridge

Every obvious subject here is incomplete. The woman, the boat, the bridge, Fuji, the background boats, the sweep of the canal and waterfront, and the temple are all partly obscured. The trees that the petals are falling from are completely obscured. This device, of every center of attention deferring, making a pinball of the eye, is typical of Hiroshige and of some of my favorite photography. By not idealizing, it looks more real: blocked lines of sight are to a view something like wrinkles and moles are to a portrait. It makes you work, gently, to imagine how things look and what’s going on. Mostly, it persuades you to see the scene itself as the subject. I can imagine people calling this kind of eyeball-foiling a pretty cheap trick, but to me it seems like brilliant play.

(Incidentally, one reason I think this is one of the least good of the Views of Edo is the perspective trouble on the right end of the boat. We’re pretty close to seeing the far bank of the canal under it, but it’s still casting a shadow as though it’s right on the water. I think it’s fair to say that Hiroshige sometimes got Western-style perspective just plain wrong. Take another Edo view, Night view of Saruwaka-machi, where people cast shadows down, reflections-on-water–style, instead of away from the moon. But, you know, Rembrandt screwed up the table in The Syndics. Whatever.)

One of the striking things about the Hundred famous views of Edo is deep staging. Roughly a third of the 118 prints in the series have something in arm’s reach of the viewer, and of course almost all of them have a horizon. Close foregrounds were unusual in the ukiyo-e of Hiroshige’s time. Hokusai, for example, did some wonderful things with Fuji lurking behind middle-distance activity in Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji (I always wonder if that series is as delightful to people who haven’t lived in places with a single big mountain on the horizon), but nothing that I’ve seen like Hiroshige’s framing boats with a ferryman, a temple in its gate, or putting birds above and below the middleground. These are kinds of careful juxtaposition that good photographers are even at this moment squatting for all around the world. They are photographic angles. They even remind me of certain photographers: the way David Alan Harvey shows more than one thing happening at a time, say.


Prints like Futagawa here, from Fifty-three stations of the Tōkaidō Road, bring to mind less technical things. To me this is obviously for a middle-class audience. I wish I knew how to say this better. It looks like something on a borgeois mantlepiece … but in a nice way. It’s a beautiful picture of something distant but fairly familiar.

It’s a kind of art, it seems to me, that wouldn’t really happen without mass reproduction and a merchant class of reasonably cultivated tastes. You don’t make a print like this for a serf or a lord. You make it for people like me and probably you, who are not professional appreciators of art, and prefer things with surface beauty, but are also not idiots, and are willing to spend some time and effort to appreciate subtler beauty. I am gladly tainted by the intentional fallacy here: looking at prints like this makes me happy that they found their audience. And it’s the first art I know of that seems continuous with the modern idea, promoted (however implicitly) by Ansel Adams, National Geographic, Richard Avedon, et al., of photography as serious art for ordinary people. (The mass-produced art in Europe at the time, recall, was mostly in the form of startlingly fugly copperplate engravings. I mean, Tenniel was a leading illustrator of the day. Ugh.)

I like to speculate – and it’s really only speculation; I would be amazed if you could show it with anything approaching rigor – that there may be actual causal flow sneaking along there. Famously, ukiyo-e went so far out of style after the Meiji Restoration that it was used to wrap stuff sent to Europe, and the artists there were so amazed they went and invented Japonisme, which fed into Art Noveau. There’s acknowledged ukiyo-e (and specifically Hiroshige) influence on Mucha, Van Gogh, and Whistler, for example, and I think maybe also on favorites of Mom’s like Larsson and Bilibin. So here’s the huge and probably unfalsifiable leap: the influence of this kind of ukiyo-e–influenced painting, with asymmetrical composition, thick and balanced color, and rich detail across the frame, helped f/64 take over the mainstream of non-journalistic photography from pictorialism. In other words, Hiroshige’s depth and sharpness, at length, helped turn Western taste in photography against late-Victorian vaselined-lens stuff and toward the kind of thing we’re used to today. A reach, I know, but one that makes some sense to me.

So. Hiroshige as a photographer. Think about it.