On the door to my studio I have alternating displays of selections from my post card collection. Because Japan is a soon to be tangible piece of our lives, I presently have some of my Japanese postcards on display. In actual fact, the majority of these images are photographs, not post cards (except for the two images of women in kimonos on the top row which are postcards), from a Paul’s Photos in Chicago. I have been unable to find any information about this photo studio except for a reference to a photograph taken by Paul’s Photos of a model of the Johnson building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1936. I’m guessing these photos are from before the war, probably in the thirties.
The backs of these photos describe the images on the front and have a reference number, presumably for ordering. On the back of the image of two small girls, third row, next to last, it says, “Our Photographer visits Japan.” Then there is information about these girls “of the better class” taking part in a Buddhist Temple Festival.
I have almost two dozen of these images. I found them 35 years ago at a resale shop buried beneath a pile of magazine pages and other ephemera. The owner said the photo shop had closed some years before (the resale shop was located only a few blocks away from the photo studio) and these were some of the images left behind, obviously no longer exotic, valued, or even remembered by their owners.
The majority of the photos are of Japanese people involved in traditional arts: spinning silk, papermaking, making wooden shoes, dying fabric, grading cocoons, doll making, carving architectural ornaments, tiling a shingle roof, hemp making, tatami matt making, seal carving. In only one photograph is there any eye contact between the photographer and the artisan, a carpenter with a huge ax whose gaze and smile reveal deference and amusement. In the rest of the photos, they are seemingly engaged in their work indifferent to the photographer, but I suspect some posing to prevent blurring of the image.
These images, taken almost a century ago, are intriguing and provocative. They are documentations taken by an American photographer of what must have seemed incredibly exotic and strange. Some of the descriptions on the back of the photos reveals this discomfort and intrigue with difference and attempts to “westernize” its understanding (see last photo of post).
Discarded photos are complex and rich. They evoke more questions than they answer. They are what they are but they are also little mysteries, tantalizing conundrums that tease at intention and purpose, point of view, and how we see the “other.”
Sometimes we layer our lives by acquiring these puzzles and displaying them on our studio doors to ponder.