Ukai Gyokusen

Photographer, Visual Artist

1807 – 1887


Who was Ukai Gyokusen?

Ukai Gyokusen was a pioneering Japanese photographer. Although he is much less well known than his contemporaries Shimooka Renjō and Ueno Hikoma, he is important for being the first Japanese professional photographer, having established a photographic studio in Edo in 1860 or 1861.

Ukai was born in what is now Ishioka, Ibaraki Prefecture, the youngest of four brothers. The family was well-off, Ukai's father being a finance commissioner for the daimyo Matsudaira Jijū Yorisaki. When Ukai was thirteen, he was adopted by the sake supplier to another daimyo, Mikawaya, and he thus became a merchant. Ukai developed an interest in art and antiques after coming to know the bunjinga painter Tani Bunchō, and in 1831 he left the sake business to become a full-time artist.

In 1859, with the intention of learning photographic technique, Ukai travelled to Yokohama, one of the few Japanese cities to which foreigners had access and therefore one of the early sites of photography in Japan. Ukai was taught by American photographer Orrin Freeman, whose camera and equipment he eventually may have bought. In 1860 or 1861 he moved to Edo and set up a studio which he called Eishin-dō that was mentioned in a late 1861 publication titled Ō-Edo tōsei hanakurabe shohen. By operating in Edo, a city that excluded foreigners, Ukai was unlike Shimooka, Ueno and others whose clientele was predominantly foreign residents and visitors. Instead, Ukai photographed those few Japanese who both knew of photography and could afford to sit for a portrait. Within a few years, Ukai managed to produce over two hundred ambrotype portraits of members of the aristocracy. He closed his studio in 1867.

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on July 23, 2013


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