Uchida Kuichi was born in 1844 in Nagasaki, Japan. His mother died when he was a child, and at age 13, he lost his father to cholera. He was subsequently adopted by a physician named Matsumoto Ryojun, who was studying photography under fellow physician Johannes Pompe van Meerdervoort. He, too, became an enthusiastic photography student under the tutelage of Ueno Hikoma, and within three years was purchasing his own equipment from the Deshima (or Dejima) Dutch trading post. By age 19, Mr. Uchida was an importer and seller of photographic equipment while studying chemistry under Dr. van Meerdervoort. After completion of those studies, he traveled to the Chikuzen Province (now part of the Fukuoka Prefecture) to learn the latest technical processes from photographer Genzo Maeda.
By age 21, Mr. Uchida, along with Morita Raizo, opened a studio in Osaka. Apparently, this was a short-lived partnership, and within a year, he opened his own solo gallery in Yokohama, and later a studio in Tokyo. By 1870, Mr. Uchida was regarded as the best portraitist in Tokyo, no small feat considering many Japanese were superstitious about being photographed. Charging his few sitters a fee of $75 for a carte-de-visite sized plate, he made his real money selling these portraits to foreigners and tourists. However, the lack of sitters (which necessitated paying professional models) forced Mr. Uchida to supplement his income by teaching photography to locals, swearing them to secrecy. In 1872, the Imperial Household Ministry contacted Mr. Uchida to join the Emperor Meiji on his official tour of Japan. He received exclusive rights to photograph the Emperor, who was revered as a god by his subjects and seldom made public appearances. Mr. Uchida took the first authorized photographs of the Emperor and Empress, but his initial images of a courtly attired Emperor were sharply criticized for perpetuating negative stereotypes. They were promptly replaced by an imperial portrait of the Emperor in Western-style military dress.
Mr. Uchida's association with the Emperor Meiji reinforced his reputation as Japan's premier master photographer. He became a member of the royal entourage, and also photographed the popular kabuki actors of the period, whose celebrity status mirrored that of modern-day rock stars. So renowned was Mr. Uchida, he became the subject of a widely performed kabuki play. His esteemed status financed a lavish lifestyle that included an opulent estate in Tokyo's exclusive Kanda Suruga region. Sadly, Uchida Kuichi's storybook life and career ended prematurely when he contracted tuberculosis and died on February 17, 1875 at the age of 30. Although this photographic pioneer has slipped into obscurity with the passage of time, his Meiji photographs continue to have major historical significance. Several recent retrospectives of his work have introduced this elusive portraitist to a new generation of Japanese photography enthusiasts.
1996 Early Japanese Images by Terry Bennett (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.), pp. 2-4.
2017 Early Photography of Japan (URL: http://hcl.harvard.edu/collections/epj/photographers.cfm).
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), p. 1415.
2017 Mutsuhito, The Meiji Emperor (URL: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/264743).
2017 Photographic Print: Kabuki Actor (URL: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3273022&partId=1).
2012 The Premise of Fidelity by Maki Fukuoka (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), p. 158.
1996 Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan by Takashi Fujitani (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), p. 176.
2017 Uchida Kuichi (URL: https://upclosed.com/people/uchida-kuichi).
2012 Uchida Kuichi — Photographer of the Late Edo and Early Meiji Periods (URL: http://fujifilmsquare.jp/en/detail/120608012.html).
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