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  Ueno Hikoma

Born in Nagasaki, Japan on October 15, 1838, Ueno Hikoma descended from a family of artisans. His father, Ueno Toshinojo, was a merchant for the Shimazu clan, and was believed to have imported Japan's first daguerreotype camera in 1848. Originally a student of Chinese classics, he changed his major to chemistry shortly after his father's death in 1852, to assist in his family's dye business. While attending Nagasaki Medical College, Mr. Ueno was instructed by Dutch-born naval physician Johannes L. C. Pompe van Meerdervoort in both chemistry and in basic rudiments of photography. However, it was only after receiving formal training by Swiss photographer Pierre Rossier that the young science student began seriously considering photography as a vocation. It was through Mr. Rossier that Mr. Ueno, along with contemporaries that included Horie Kuwajirō and Maeda Genzo, learned wet-collodion techniques, which were foreign concepts in the Far East at that time. Horie Kuwajirō, a friend of Mr. Ueno, purchased a wet-plate camera and some equipment with funds provided by Tsu domain chief clansman, Todo Takayuki. With access to these necessary tools, Mr. Ueno began constructing cameras with lenses from old telescopes and experimenting with various chemical processes.

Abandoning his studies, Mr. Ueno teamed with Mr. Horie to write a textbook, Seimikyoku hikkei (Chemist's Handbook), that included an appendix entitled Satsueijutsu (The Technique of Photography), which detailed the wet-collodion process along with the asphalt printing technique of Nicephore Niépce. By 1862, Mr. Ueno was operating a studio near Nagasaki's Nakashima River while running a camera import business as a sideline. Within two decades, its success among Japanese locals and foreigners was without peer. He combatted the Japanese fear of being photographed by making portraits of such important Japanese government officials as Katsu Kaishu, Sakamoto Ryōma, Takasugi Shinsaku, and Ito Shunsuke, and also immortalized the revered samurai. His international dignitaries were equally impressive, and included former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant and Russia's future Tsar Nicholas II.

Initially, like his contemporaries, Mr. Ueno was a practitioner of wet-plate photography, but incorporated the latest techniques he likely learned from his photographer friend, Felice Beato. Always a student at heart, he also continued his education by learning from photographers and Japanese transplants, Dutchman Konrad Walter Gratama and Austrian Wilhelm Burger, while himself eager to spread his vast knowledge. Mr. Ueno's impressive pupil roster included Noguchi Jōichi, Nagai Nagayoshi, Morita Raizō, Nakajima Shinzō, Ueno Yoshima, and his most famous student, Uchida Kuichi. As his fame grew, so, too, did Mr. Ueno's photographic empire, which included Chinese studios in Shanghai and Hong Kong and a Russian branch in Vladivostok. 1877 was a particularly busy year, when Nagasaki governor Kitajima Hidetomo commissioned him to photograph the Satsuma Rebellion, and he also began practicing dry-collodion photography, utilizing Belgian plates. His photographs - which were predominantly not hand-colored - were exhibited at the Vienna World Exposition in 1873, and one of his portraits received a prize for "Good Taste and Artistic Finish" at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition held in Chicago.

Sixty-five-year-old Ueno Hikoma died in Nagasaki on May 22, 1904, and his status as one of Japan's photographic pioneers endures. Eight of his digitized photographs can be found online from Washington, DC's Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. The "Ueno Hikoma Award" was established in 2000 to encourage aspiring Japanese photographers. Its namesake would be proud.

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2009 Articulating the Sinosphere by Joshua A. Fogel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p. 83.

2006 Challenging Past and Present edited by Ellen P. Conant (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press), p. 161.

2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 770, 1415.

1983 Geisha by Liza Crihfield Dalby (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), p. 95.

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2004 Longfellow's Tattoos: Tourism, Collecting, and Japan by Christine Guth (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press), p. 131.

2011 Respect and Consideration by John W. Denney (Leicester, England: Radiance Press), p. 151.

2017 Ueno Hikoma (URL:

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