Old Japan Old Japan


Tell a friend
about this page...

Your name:

Your email:

Friend’s email:

Other Articles in Brief...

Click to enlarge

France and Japan 

The Gordes Brothers

A very recent interesting discovery in the field of early Japanese photography is the role played by the previously unknown French photo studio, Gordes & Co. The firm consisted of two brothers, Henri and Auguste, and although they seem to have kept a relatively low profile they played a significant part in the development of photography in Japan. In the information that has emerged, it is now clear that their photographic activities in Japan spanned the period from 1867 at the latest, until 1890. This easily makes Gordes & Co the longest-running 19th-century Western studio in Japan.

Both brothers were long term residents in Japan and are buried together at the Sakamoto International Cemetery in Nagasaki. At this point in time, only a few photographs can be positively attributed; but there are many albums of Japanese photographs still awaiting studio identification and given the longevity of the Gordes' studios, it is almost certain that matches will be made before too long.

Henri Gordes (pronounced Gord) appears to have been the first to come to Japan and Nagasaki records show him as a resident from 1862. A studio advertisement carte de visite from the 1870s shows a montage of photographs, including some that are recognizable as the work of Stillfried. But the brothers were more than just distributors of the famous Baron's work.

A 1952 Japanese photo-history book lists the Japanese photographers taught by the Frenchman Anryu Gorudo, beginning in 1867. Although Henri seems to have been based at Nagasaki for most of the time, Auguste operated a studio in Osaka from either 1870 or 1871. He was almost certainly the first foreigner to do so, although early competition was reported in the May 31st, 1871 issue of the Hiogo News by that newspaper's resident Osaka correspondent: "We have now two foreign photographic establishments here, which is rather curious, seeing that there is not one in Kobe. Mr. Parant, who was formerly with Messrs. Gordes Brothers, has now started on his own account, and I hear is likely to be a formidable competitor to the older established house…"

Whilst in Osaka, Auguste placed the following advertisement in the Kobe-based, Hiogo News, just five days after the devastating typhoon which rocked Kobe:

FOR SALE. Splendid Photographic Views of the Disasters in Hiogo, Taken by A. Gordes, Photographer of Osaka. A Large Photograph on Bristol Card-board, 24 ˝ in. by 14in…. $3. Four photographs on Bristol Card-board, 16in. by 12in., each $2. The whole series for $10. E. Vincienne. No. 11, Old Bellevue Buildings Hiogo, July 15th 1871

By 1874 a further studio has opened in Kobe, and another carte de visite from this time, advertising both the Osaka and Kobe studios, shows the name of 'A Gordes'. Henri is still resident in Nagasaki. But by 1875, the directories no longer list the Osaka operation. Kobe remains open until at least 1877, but by 1880 the brothers have closed Kobe and consolidated their business in Nagasaki. The studio there would continue until 1890. The 1991 book Across the Gulf of Time - The International Cemeteries of Nagasaki, by Lane Earns & Brian Burke-Gaffney, shows that Henri died in 1889 aged 47, and Auguste in 1894 aged 49. Henri's tombstone inscription shows that he was a native of Marseilles.

The French Gordes brothers' longevity as commercial photographers in Japan was a remarkable achievement. They appear to be the first Western photographers to have had a commercial studio based in Osaka (1871-1874), and were certainly one of the first to operate in Kobe (1874-1877). They are also the earliest known Western commercial studio based in Nagasaki. Incredibly, they are virtually unknown, with very little photography attributed to them. Their contribution to Japanese photo-history is only now beginning to be recognised.

(This is only a brief summary of Henri and Auguste Gordes' activities, and the full story appears in the writer's book: Photography in Japan 1853-1912.)

Terry Bennett
1st June 2005
(Updated 1st December 2006)

Click to enlarge

American Ambrotypist 

Orrin Erastus Freeman (1830-1866)

It has been known for some time that the American merchant, Orrin Freeman, was the first to set up a commercial photo studio in Japan, having relocated from Shanghai at the end of 1859, or early 1860. In setting up his Yokohama studio, Freeman became a pivotal figure in early Japanese photography because he taught Ukai Gyokusen, who would become the first Japanese professional photographer in 1860 or 1861. Freeman also sold his camera, stock and equipment to Ukai for a reportedly large sum of money – sufficient for Freeman to give up photography and reinvest the proceeds in a general store, stocked with goods imported from Shanghai. He then enjoyed a very successful career until his untimely death in Yokohama, in 1866.

His grave is in the Gaijin Bochi (Foreigners’ Cemetery) at Yokohama and the headstone gives his year of birth as 1830 and makes clear he was a native of Boston, Massachusetts. Until now, however, almost nothing else has been known about his family background, his reasons for travelling to the Far East or his photographic experience before setting up the Yokohama studio. Thanks to the discovery of his Will, a collection of letters from a brother (located by researcher, Eric Politzer) and further research into his movements in the Far East and America, it is now possible to fill in many of the gaps.

Orrin’s brother, Albert, was a successful merchant in Shanghai from 1855 and this encouraged Orrin to try his luck in the Far East. He arrived in Shanghai in March 1859. Although he seems to have led an unsettled life in Boston (he was a saloon-keeper before travelling to China) he had become interested in photography and was determined to open an ambrotype studio in China. Bringing his equipment with him, he set up his studio in Soochow. When this didn’t work out, he moved back to Shanghai and opened a studio there and advertised it in the North China Herald:

AMBROTYPES-AMBROTYPES. The undersigned respectfully begs to intimate to the Community that he is prepared to take the Ambrotype likeness in a style superior to anything hitherto offered in Shanghai. Charges low and satisfaction guaranteed. Yang-king Pang Road, next door to Messrs. H. Fogg & Co. ORRIN E. FREEMAN. Shanghai, 21st July, 1859.

A month later the same newspaper advertised a change of studio address. This advertisement ran until its last insert on the 26th November, 1859.

The undersigned has removed his Ambrotype Room to the French Bund, next door to Kin-te-yuen's Silk Shop. Orrin E. Freeman Shanghai, 26th August 1859

Although this makes it possible that Freeman moved to Yokohama in December, it is more likely that he arrived in early 1860. We can infer this from an article written by an old-time Yokohama resident, G.W. Rogers, Early Recollections of Yokohama, published in the Japan Weekly Mail of 5th December 1903. Rogers mentions Freeman and the context suggests that Rogers arrived first. We know that Rogers arrived in Yokohama at the end of December, 1859.

Orrin’s Shanghai studio was not a great success. He decided to try again in the newly opened port of Yokohama, where he was to do better. We will never know what impact he might have made had he kept his Japanese studio going for longer. However, Ukai clearly made him an offer that was too good to refuse.

(This is only a brief summary of Orrin Freeman’s activities, and the full story appears in the writer’s book: Photography in Japan 1853-1912.)

Terry Bennett
1st June 2005
(Updated 1st December 2006)

Showing 1 to 2 of 2
|< First< PreviousNext >Last >|

Using, copying, or distributing computer images of old photographs
or pictures without permission is strictly prohibited.

(C) Copyright 2004-2013. Website Design Summit Computing Ltd