Treasures of the library

Photography Albums by Ogawa Kazumasa

In this issue and next, I hope to introduce a series of photography albums by Ogawa Kazumasa, an early pioneer in Japanese photography, in response to a special request made by Sir Hugh Cortazzi, patron to the expanding Lisa Sainsbury Library’s rare books collection.

Ogawa Kazumasa (1860-1929) was one of the key giants of the early Japanese photography world. Active from around the second half of 19th century to the early 20th century, Ogawa was a leading photographer and photographic print maker known for his ability to adopt cutting edge techniques in a period of rapid developments.

Ogawa was the first Japanese to produce collotype prints in the country in 1888, four years after returning from Boston having learnt the most advanced photographic techniques there. By the following year in 1889, he opened Ogawa Photography Printers (Ogawa Shashin Seihansho) to produce a number of high quality collotype prints. Many who share interest in Japanese art history may have heard of Kokka, a distinguished art journal started by Okakura Tenshin in 1893 and continues to be in circulation to this day. Ogawa was responsible for producing photographs and illustrated prints for Kokka for some time from the journal’s first issue. In fact, the superior quality of his collotypes made Ogawa indispensable to produce prints that expressed not only the subtle qualities of sculpted forms, but also the gentle ink gradations of ink paintings.1
According to the curator Okatsuka Akiko, ‘the illustrated plates in Kokka were made by Ogawa Kazumasa with his superior technology that was considered so outstanding that it left little room for competition.’2

Portrait of Ogawa Kazumasa (1860-1929)

Ogawa, famous for his collotype prints that captured the fine and delicate details, was the first photographer to be conferred with the Imperial Household Artist title in 1910. He was admired not only in Japan but also overseas, and received awards and decorations from Sweden, Siam (present day Thailand), Italy and France. 3
In Britain, he was welcomed as a member to the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1889, and in 1895 as the first Japanese fellow to its newly established fellowships. 4, 5

Ogawa Kazumasa’s publications fall into two key categories: those intended for the Japanese domestic market and others for the international audience market. The examples in the Lisa Sainsbury Library are the latter type and comprises of eleven photography albums. All albums are produced between 1890 and 1910, and corresponds to the latter part of a period known as Japonisme, a period before the First World War in Europe where things Japanese were much coveted and collected.

The albums in the Library includes:

  • The charming views in the “Land of the rising sun”(1904)Famous castles and temples of Japan (1898?)
  • The Great Earthquake in Japan (1891?)
  • The Hakone district (1892?)
  • Japanese studies (1906)
  • Lilies of Japan (1895)
  • Photographs of Japanese customs and manners (1898?)
  • Scenes from the Chushingura and the story of the forty-seven ronin (1892)
  • Sights and scenes in fair Japan (reproduced and published by K Ogawa) (1910)
  • Sights and scenes in fair Japan (published by Imperial Government Railways) (1910?)
  • Some Japanese flowers (1896?)

Furthermore, the Library has the following publications that Ogawa Kazumasa was involved in the production.
Japan described and illustrated by the Japanese (Yedo edition) (1897)
Japan described and illustrated by the Japanese — Art of Japan — Histoire de l’art du Japon (1900)

To summarise each publication would be beyond the scope of this article, so I hope to instead focus on the photography albums by Ogawa. The photograph albums in our collection can roughly be divided into the following three categories.

Japanese landscapes and famous sites
Japanese tradition and social customs
Plants and flowers

In this issue, I would like to pay particular attention to the photo albums of plants and flowers.

Lilies of Japan

The cover shows the title Lilies of Japan together with his name and other details. The book does not contain any text, but only photographs of lilies. Each image plate is protected by a thin layer of tissue paper with the name of the particular lily in phonetic romaji writing. There are twelve plates in total of which all are printed in monochrome. The colophon at the end of the book is written in Japanese and indicates that the album was printed by Ogawa Photography Printers (Ogawa Shashin Seihansho) on the sixth month of Meiji 28 (1896).

Some Japanese Flowers

Photographs of flowers with titles printed on the protective sleeve page, Some Japanese Flowers

While the title page of this photo album says ‘Some Japanese Flowers, collotype by K. Ogawa, Tokyo’, there is no information to suggest its publication date. The book is referenced in a copy of the same name published by J. Paul Getty Museum in 2013, which is also in the Library. The Getty book suggests that the original photo album was published in 1896 under the title ‘Some Japanese Flowers’. The book features images of flowers traditionally associated with East Asia including lotus blossom, cherry blossoms, camellia, peony, chrysanthemum and wisteria. The album contains no text except on the protective tissue paper layer where each of the flower name is noted in both English and Japanese, with the latter in phonetic romaji writing. All of the fifteen photographs are printed using hand-coloured plates. Colour photographs using hand-tinted plates were popular and were commonly sold as souvenir postcards to the foreigners during the Meiji period. Unlike the mass produced images, Ogawa’s photographs are in a league of their own. The masterful use of colour to beautifully articulate the details of the flowers, from the delicate veins found in the leaves to the fine folds of the petals, demonstrate the technical mastery of the craftsmen involved in the printing. It is no wonder that Okakura Tenshin entrusted Ogawa Kazumasa to reproduce images of the artistic treasures of the nation to the country.

The photographs in Lilies of Japan and Some Japanese Flowers are all, except for one that uses a folding screen, shot on a plain background. The camera crops the flowers tightly to bring the viewer’s attention to the blossoms, presented in such a way that they are floating towards the viewer. The compositions seem to reference, if not resemble, traditional European botanical painting formats, while the visual photographic style is contemporary in its aesthetics. So much so that I almost wonder if the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe may have been influenced by Ogawa’s radiant way of photographing his floral subjects.

I hope to continue exploring the work of Ogawa Kazumasa in the next issue where I plan to introduce more of his photo albums featuring images beyond plants and flowers.

Hirano Akira, Librarian
Lisa Sainsbury Library


  1. Mizuo, Hiroshi. Kokka no kiseki : meihin tansaku 110-nen. Tokyo : Asahi Shinbunsha, 2003.
  2. Okatsuka, Akiko. “Ogawa Kazumasa no ‘Kinki homotsu chosa shashin’ ni tsuite” Tokyo-to Shashin Bijutsukan Kiyo. No. 2 (2000). Pp. 37-55.
  3. Ozawa, Kiyoshi. “Shashinkai no senkaku Ogawa Kazumasa no shogai”. Tokyo : Nihon Tosho Kankokai, 1994.
  4. ”Photographic Journal including the Transactions of the Royal Photographic Society of the Great Britain”. Vol 35 (1895).
  5. ”The history of Japanese photography”. Houston : Museum of Fine Arts, 2003.