At National Geographic, Scidmore Photos and Samurai

Rice worker NGS

Rice worker in Japan heading home, in National Geographic Scidmore collection

Photographs from Eliza Scidmore‘s days in Japan are going on display at the National Geographic Society in Washington starting today. The exhibit is twinned with an exhibit on samurai.

Included are two dozen hand-colored photos from the early 1900s, which the National Geographic attributes to Eliza Scidmore. Some were published in National Geographic; others are from the Society’s archives and have never been shown before.

Proper labeling of photo credits was a murky practice a century ago. So it’s not clear which photos Eliza Scidmore might have taken herself and which she acquired from professional photographers or studios.

Scidmore was affiliated with National Geographic for nearly 20 years, after she joined the Society in 1890. She published about a dozen articles in the magazine.

Modernization of Warriors

The related exhibit at National Geographic offers a very different view of samurai than the images we have of feudal warriors from several centuries past.

Traditionally, the samurai were an elite class, skilled at fighting but also educated in arts like literature and poetry.

Samurai warriors

Traditional samurai warriors with weapons (Photo by Kimbei Kusakabe/Smithsonian)

The samurai followed a code of conduct known as bushidō, or “way of the warrior.” It was loosely analogous to the concept of chivalry. Nitobe Inazō introduced the concept to readers in the West in a book that became popular after the turn of the century.

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, however, the samurai lost their status as a privileged class. Many sons of samurai families received a Western-style education to prepare them as diplomats, teachers and future leaders.

Not all samurai fared so well. Some had to enter service to survive — like Tatsu, whom Eliza Scidmore met at a hotel in Yokohama. He had, she said, “the face of a Roman senator, with a Roman dignity of manner quite out of keeping with his broom and dustpan.”

The National Geographic exhibit runs March 7 to Sept. 3, 2012, at National Geographic’s Explorer’s Hall in downtown Washington. Tickets ($8 for adults) are required for admission.

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  1. Don Nakayama on September 24, 2012 at 3:17 am

    I am interested in the details of the 1926 news article interviewing Ms Scidmore where she refers to the role played by Takamine. Can you direct me to the article – I am trying to determine whether Takamine himself finances the purchase, or if it was the Japan Club of NYC or the city of Tokyo itself.
    Any help you can provide would be much appreciated.

    Thank you


  2. Gael Newton on June 19, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    Eliza Scidmore certainly used photographs by Javanese photographer Kassian Cephas uncredited in her book on Java , and the hand coloured images of Japan would most likely be similarly uncredited local photographers. European and American writers imagined that their audiences would not recognise the authorship.

    Gael Newton Senior Curator Photography National Gallery of Australia

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