Herbert Geddes’ “Life in Japan” Collection: Hand-Coloured Glass Transparencies of the Meiji-Era

These glass-plate transparencies depicting life in Japan, likely the work of a number of photographers (names unknown), were collected in Yokohama during the years 1908–1918 by Herbert Geddes, a manager for a Canadian import-export company. According to the University of Victoria, where the plates are housed, such photographs (known as "Yokohama Photographs") were “sold to foreign tourists between about 1869 and 1912, before cameras and postcards were generally available”.

The subjects here range from what we would still associate with art aimed at tourists (temples, bridges, urban streets) to now less common images of labor (including silk factories, rice cultivation, and blacksmithing — not to mention the many women and girls carrying babies on their backs) — providing an intimate view into a largely bygone world.

Positive glass transparencies such as these were made directly from glass negatives (which were commonly used before the introduction of photographic film). As the photography historian Kim Timby writes, “When a glass negative was contact-printed to create a glass positive, none of the transparency and precision provided by the glass support were lost. No paper fibers absorbed solutions at any stage or left their trace during printing.” The resulting images were crystal clear, and could be projected through “magic lanterns” to allow people to experience photographs at an impressive scale. There was also something about the use of glass, so Timby writes, that appealed to a modern aesthetic: “It called to mind the exactness of lenses and prisms, the science of vision, the light and transparency of greenhouses, and the covered arcades and shop windows of modern urban life.”

As with photographic prints, glass transparencies were often hand-colored, a practice which during the Meiji Period (1868–1912) became more popular in Japan than it ever was in Europe or America. As photographs gradually replaced ukiyo-e prints on the marketplace, printmakers found themselves out of work — and so turned their skilled hands to coloring the competition.

The luminous effect of such coloring on glass, such as in Geddes' collection, are particularly stunning. The depth of field in some of the images, combined with the artists’ attentive shading and sense of tone, make it seem they could have been taken yesterday on color film.

Browse a selection from the collection, complete with captions, below.

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