A Good Type: Tourism and Science in Early Japanese Photographs

Untitled Samurai portrait
Detail, Untitled, Raimund von Stillfried, circa 1870s, PM 2003.1.2223.396

Photographs capture an instant in an image, but the meaning the viewer takes from that image is not fixed. The photographs of Japanese people and scenes in this exhibition, for example, have transcended the intentions of the photographers, who created them as souvenirs for Japan’s first tourists. Foreigners poured into Japan following the end of the country’s more than 250 years of self-imposed isolation. Late 19th-century visitors were fascinated with Japanese culture—and enticed by such photographs. 

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These photographs were also collected by scientists, such as medical doctors, archaeologists, and anthropologists, who donated them to museums and other institutions, consequently changing the context for interpretation and meaning. This exhibition of photographs from the Peabody Museum’s collections examines the intersection of tourism and science in this new context. 

Scientists shared tourists’ fascination with Japan, and its photography became important to scientific research. During these years, photographs were valued because scientists believed that a photograph objectively captured essential physical characteristics of the body, which could then be connected to culture and traits such as personality and intelligence. In this thinking, an image reduced an individual to a “physical type” by removing historical and cultural context. This “type” was then generalized to represent an entire group. By the mid-20th century, such ideas about types were discredited.

This exhibition was originially mounted in 2007, and curated by then visiting curator David Odo and supported in part by a grant from the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University. 

The Journey of "A Good Type": From Artistry to Ethnography in Early Japanese Photographs. By David Odo with a forward by Elizabeth Edwards. Peabody Museum Press, 2015.