- Photography for Everyone: The Cultural Lives of Camera and Consumers in Early Twentieth-Century Japan by Kerry Ross
One of the many factors that make the study of photographic histories interesting and challenging is the historically and culturally unsettled status of photography as a technology and a medium. Since its introduction in 1839, what we generally call “photography” has, along with its histories, invited many contentious debates concerning the names for the technology, its place in the discourse of fine art, and its role in reportage, science, and spirituality, just to name a few. The applications of the technology and the meanings generated by photographic images within any given context are far from uniform; likewise, the divergent and contiguous processes through which these meanings and values are established.
Indeed, recent years have witnessed the emergence of scholarship that begins by asking the fundamental question of what it means to write a history of such a ubiquitous technology with such an indefinite standing. Pointing to the heterogeneity of uses of and hermeneutic approaches to photographic images, and the varied practices of photography found across the world, this line of inquiry suggests the futility of assuming a coherent and stable “identity” for the technology, be it its relationship to art or popular culture, or its “nature.” Instead, the new research advocates engagement with the materials through transdisciplinary analysis. Most notably, it questions the tacit acceptance of binary and hierarchical categories transposed from art-historical discourses, such as the professional versus the amateur, the original versus the reproduction, and expression versus documentation.
Given this recent inclination of the field, it is refreshing to see how Kerry Ross approaches her chosen facet of the history of photography in Photography for Everyone: The Cultural Lives of Camera and Consumers in Early Twentieth-Century Japan. Rather than go along with these methodological shifts, Ross takes photography as a singular technology and medium that involves a photographer; products such as light-sensitive materials, a camera, and darkroom equipment; and the resulting prints. She navigates the public discourses about photography found in publications, retail spaces, and business strategies for product placement in the early twentieth century, with a focus on the 1920s and 1930s. Her research brings to the fore the ways in which targeted consumers of photography in Japan were shaped by synergetic networks linking equipment producers, retail specialists, popular magazines and publication series, critics, and what she calls “the hobbyists” themselves. The groups analyzed here are conglomerates of individuals who share a financial investment and an interest, and in that sense, Ross’s examination represents a distinct move away from the focus on the individual. The ambivalence of any historical individual’s thinking [End Page 434] about photography—which occupies many of the other photographic histories of the same period—is thus seen to be less relevant than the ways in which hobbyists came together to form clubs, for example.
This sociologically concerned inquiry allows Ross to foreground the role of photography hobbyists as a contiguous aspect of photographic history that must be taken seriously. The familiar separation between the professional and the amateur is thus problematized to the extent that the middle-class male contributed to the economic and cultural rise of the photographic enterprise, although it remains operative in the sense that these hobbyists are rendered as amateurs. Ross firmly locates the efforts of the “average Joes” within the story of photography so as to rectify the unbalanced attention to individual “artists” and their oeuvre.
Photography for Everyone begins with an examination first of retail spaces and company strategies (chapter 1, “A Retail Revolution: Male Shoppers and the Creation of the Modern Shop”) and then of two-dimensional advertisements for photographic consumer goods (chapter 2, “Photography for Everyone: Women, Hobbyists, and Marketing Photography”), shedding light on how potential customers were lured into commercial spaces in the first place. Chapter 3, “Instructions for Life: How-to Literature and Hobby Photography,” elaborates on and complicates the analyses of the first two chapters by...