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Fellows at the Sainsbury Institute

Karen Fraser

Assistant Professor at Santa Clara University in California; Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow (2007-08)


I vividly remember the cool, overcast afternoon that greeted me when I landed at Heathrow in August 2007. It was a welcome change from the sultry heat of New York City, where I had just spent several weeks en route from my home in California, and it left me feeling energized despite the jetlag. It was an auspicious beginning to what would turn out to be an action-packed and fruitful year based at SOAS in London as a Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow offered by the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures.

The most obvious benefit of any long-term research fellowship is the ability to engage in sustained scholarship. I used this precious time to draft two articles. The first, “Studio Practices in Early Japanese Photography: The Tomishige Archive,” was published in the journalHistory of Photography the year after my fellowship ended (2009); the other, on Japan’s first nationwide beauty contest, finally made it to print just last year (“Beauty Battle: Politics and Portraiture in Late Meiji Japan,” inVisualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology on East Asia, Aida Yuen Wong, ed., Hong Kong University Press, 2012). But the research highlight of my fellowship year was the opportunity to develop a new project, a book surveying the history of Japanese photography (Photography and Japan, Reaktion Books, 2011). This presented an exciting challenge, requiring me to move away from the narrow scholarly focus of my recently completed doctoral thesis and to think instead about how to write a broad introductory text for a general audience. It was an invaluable learning experience, one that I likely would not have had as an early career researcher if not for my Sainsbury Institute affiliation.


In addition to providing the time and space to conduct research full time, the fellowship year provided the chance to engage in an exceptional range of scholarly activities. This is a particularly valuable opportunity for a recent Ph.D. and I was thrilled to give a number of talks on several different topics at venues including SOAS, Cambridge, the University of East Anglia, the British Museum, and Sainsbury Institute. In addition I was able to attend many events and conferences both in London and in Norwich, at SOAS, the British Museum, the Daiwa Foundation, the Japanese Embassy, and of course at the Sainsbury Institute. I was truly taken by surprise by the sheer number and variety of events related to Japanese art and culture, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to take advantage of so many of them. Perhaps even more memorable were the opportunities to meet scholars from all over the world, many of whom were passing through London and Norwich working on projects connected to or facilitated by the Sainsbury Institute. If there was one constant pleasure that year, it was the numerous late nights of stimulating conversation with colleagues over fine wine and food.
It is hard to believe almost five years have passed since my time at the Institute, but my current projects continue to draw on ideas and research from that year. Another highlight of my time in London was making frequent visits to the British Museum to peruse the Japanese photobook collection, with a particularly memorable afternoon spent viewing a potential acquisition of early twentieth-century photobooks at Magg’s Bros with curator Tim Clark. I have incorporated many of those works into a class I currently teach on Japanese photography, and one of my articles-in-progress looks at early photographic books that I was able to view at the Victoria and Albert Museum in addition to those from the British Museum. This is but one example of the ways in which my fellowship experience has continued to provide inspiration long after the completion of the fellowship. I will forever be grateful for my time as a fellow, and I look forward to returning to the UK and the Sainsbury Institute whenever possible.

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