Shimooka Renjo was born in the port city of Shimoda, Japan on March 24, 1823. His father was a prosperous samurai shipper to the Tokugawa ruling class (shogunate), and it is believed that because he was the third son, he was adopted by another family at a young age. He displayed artistic inclination at an early age, and by 13 was studying art while serving as a merchant apprentice. He was later enlisted as a samurai in the Shimoda artillery, where he met and became the pupil of prominent local artist Kano Tosen.
Following his military service, Mr. Shimooka returned to Edo in hopes of resuming his artistic studies. A Dutch daguerreotype portrait hung in a Tokugawa home, sparked his interest in photography. He became a draughtsman in the Kanagawa Prefecture coast guard office, which enabled Mr. Shimooka to learn English and discover the latest daguerreotype techniques from European passengers. Henry Heusken, secretary to American Consul General to Japan Townsend Harris, provided him with basic instruction and gave him a primitive equipment demonstration by using twigs as a tripod, a piece of paper folded like a box as a camera, and glass as a lens. From there, Mr. Shimooka moved to Yokohama, where he received additional training from American Captain John Wilson. Around this time, he also became acquainted with another American, Raphael Schoyer (founder of the Japan Gazette), whose wife introduced him to the Western style of painting. Before returning to American, Captain Wilson reportedly gave Mr. Shimooka his stereo camera, some developing chemicals, and photographic accessories.
Unable to achieve any commercial success as a photographer, Mr. Shimooka opened an art gallery, which he later expanded to include a photo studio. He was also receiving additional training from American missionaries and gifted amateur photographers Samuel Robbins Brown and his daughter Julia Brown Lowder. It is believed that Mr. Shimooka’s images of Japanese culture, including the costuming of his wife/model as a geisha, perpetuated the Western “Fujiyama-geisha” stereotype that endured for centuries. He taught photography to several students who would eventually become successful photographers in their own right, including Yokoyama Matsusaburo, Esaki Reiji, and Suzuki Shinichi.
Although Mr. Shimooka attempted to expand into dairy and horse-drawn carriage businesses, none proved lucrative. After producing more than 150 cartes de visite and several stereoviews by 1875, he turned over most of the photographic work to his assistants and focused more on oil painting and lithography. His later paintings bear the seal, “Shashin Ganso” (“The Original Photographer”). Mr. Shimooka’s strong Western ties remained, as reflected in his Christian faith, and by the twentieth century he received several accolades from the Tokyo government for his ground-breaking photographic contributions. Shimooka Renjo died on March 3, 1914 at the age of 90. To commemorate the centennial of his passing, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography hosted a retrospective in 2014, which featured nearly 300 photographs (including his cartes-de-visite and landscapes) from the museum’s extensive collection. Although the title “father of Japanese photography” continues to be debated by photo historians, there is no doubt that Shimooka Renjo was one of Japan’s photographic pioneers and adapted this Western art to reflect Eastern cultural sensibilities.
2005 The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints by Amy Reigle Newland (Leiden, The Netherlands: Hotei Publishing), p. 269.
2003 Japan and Britain after 1859: Creating Cultural Bridges by Olive Checkland (London, UK: RoutledgeCurzon), p. 103.
2006 Photography in Japan 1853-1912 by Terry Bennett (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing), pp. 69-72, 318.
2020 Shimooka, Renjo: The Tom Burnett Collection (URL: http://tomburnettcollection.com/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=274&g2_page=2).
2014 Shimooka Renjo and the Mystery G.A.B. Stereoview Series by Terry Bennett & Rob Oechsle (URL: https://oldasiaphotography.com/pdf/researches/article-shimooka-renjo.pdf).
2014 Shimooka Renjo, Back in Focus by Alice Gordenker (URL: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/03/26/arts/shimooka-renjo-back-in-focus/#.XnqKbHJ7k2w).
1988 A Timely Encounter by Susan B. Taylor (Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum Press), p. 25.
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