Artist Profile – Kusakabe Kimbei

Kusakabe Kimbei started his career working as a photographic colourist for Felice Beato. After working for him he opened his own photography studio and became one of the most prolific souvenir photographers in Yokohama from the 1880s to the 1900s. This genre ended up being called Yokohama photography due to the key role that city played as a destination for Western travellers. He continued his practice of hand colouring that he developed when working for Beato in his own work as he became highly skilled in it and this reflects in his own work today. Beat was a very influential icon for Kimbei and he inherited his approach and style within his own photographs. “Kimbei based his approach to the staging of Japanese women on his predecessors. In particular, Beato’s role in shaping his visual practice must be acknowledged to highlight both his debt to and departure from his master’s pictorial practice. Beato not only trained the young studio assistant during the 1860s and early 1870s, but more importantly also set the standard for Yokohama souvenir photography.” (Wakita, M. 2013)

And many articles and books have been written on Kimbei’s approach to photographing Japanese women and femininity in his souvenir photography. His photographs of women often exemplify very mainstream ideologies of  Japanese souvenir photography during this time. “In the text Mio Wakita’s Staging Desires: Japanese Femininity in Kusakabe Kimbei’s Nineteenth-Century Souvenir. Her goal is to go beyond the idea that these images were influenced primarily by the Western consumer-driven market in order to “interrogate how the Japanese creator of the image encoded the photographic text” (Fraser, K. 2015)  His images are all staged and are taken within a studio setting. It is evident that a considerable amount of time has gone into hair, make up, costume and staged setting as a way to produce a portrayal of Japanese culture, which to Kimbei was portraying accurately. But to Japanese citizens at that time may have been generalised.


Kusakabe Kimbei


The composition and staging of the photographs would have been very carefully considered before the photograph was being taken. The framing enables the whole body to be shown, allowing for all the clothing of the subject to be easily seen which is a key part of the Japanese culture. And as Kimbei is a souviner photography, this was integral. Photographic considerations such as the depth of field is another element of the photograph which allows the subject to be in sharp focus. These studio portraits ultimately portray a theatrical and almost surrealist atmosphere.

His application of colour is extremely precise, to the extent that it is almost impossible to tell that it is not an original colour image. The vibrant colours add to the representation of Japanese culture to the traveller or person who would be ultimately purchasing the souvenir. Even when not vibrant the colours are subtle but play a huge role in the overall impact of the image.

When producing my own images I would like to apply Kimbei’s precise technique of the application of colour to my images. With the hope that the viewer may not know that it was hand coloured at all. Additionally, I will carefully consider what colours should be vibrant and what colours should be discreet to enable the best photographic results.


  • Wakita, M. (2013) Staging Desires: Japanese Femininity in Kusakabe Kimbei’s Nineteenth Century Souvenir Photography. United States: Dietrich Reimer
  • Wakita, M. (2009) ‘Selling Japan: Kusakabe Kimbei’s Image of Japanese Women’, History of Photography, Volume 33(Issue 2), p. Pages 209–223
  • Fraser, K. (2015) Staging Desires: Japanese Femininity in Kusakabe Kimbei’s Nineteenth-Century Souvenir Photography. Available at: (Accessed: 3 April 2015)

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