The National Geographic exhibition “Samurai: The Warrior Transformed” explores not just the warrior culture of the samurai, but also the way Japan used the samurai to build bridges to the West. Appropriately, the organizers included an exhibit-within-an-exhibit of photographs by Eliza R. Scidmore, who first visited Japan in 1885 and who from 1910 to 1912 worked with first lady Helen Taft to bring Washington’s now-signature cherry blossom trees to the National Mall. The roughly two dozen photographs on display are striking for their color – a rarity in the period they were made, 1911 to 1913. The color came from hand-tinting rather than the use of a color photographic process, but the pale green and light beige hues and overall soft-toned appearance of Scidmore’s images bear an uncanny resemblance to autochromes—-the pioneering (and to me, mesmerizing) color process that had emerged just a few years earlier, in 1907. Scidmore’s photographs, clad in tasteful lacquered black frames, document the kind of cultural activities that might today be considered somewhat hackneyed (an elderly sandal-maker, musicians using traditional instruments, kimono-wearing girls, boys practicing with bamboo swords). But if one can get past the tinter’s seeming inability to render faces with accurate hues, Scidmore’s images offer some bracing departures from expectations. For instance, the photograph of a group of children drawing on wall-mounted rice paper seems timeless, thanks in part to the minimalist architecture of the space they occupy. And one image that could easily have been trite—-a rice farmer returning from the paddy, implement in hand—-becomes a striking, nearly three-dimensional tableau, with the farmer walking away from the camera on an impossibly rickety elevated pathway into the mist.
The exhibition is on view to Sept. 3 at the National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW