The first candid photos ever taken in Japan

Another neat piece of photographic history went on the auction block yesterday in a Bonham’s sale called “India and Beyond – Travel and Photography”. It’s a photo album of pictures taken mainly in Japan in 1898 by the felicitously named Walter J. Clutterbuck. Candid picture by Walter Clutterbuck, Japan, 1898

Besides the awesomeness of his name (somewhat reminscent of eminent Goonies treasure hunter Chester Copperpot), Clutterbuck took what are thought to be the first candid pictures of people on the streets of Meiji-era Japan. Before him, Japanese pictures were posed studio portraits, so not exactly a slice of life.

He actually disguised his camera as a pair of binoculars so people didn’t even know he was taking pictures of them. How he managed to disguise a 19th c. stereoscopic camera as binoculars, I do not know. Here’s an example of a Henry Clay stereoscopic model from the 1890s. It’s 5 x 7 or 8 inches in dimension.

I poked around a little and found a style of binoculars from that era that might have served as cover for one of those cameras: the ‘Zodac’ Prismatic Box Binoculars were made by Aitchison & Company in 1895 or so. They’re 8 x 20 inches, and that box design might have been able to contain the entire stereoscopic camera.

Henry Clay stereoscopic camera, 1898-1899 Aitchison 'Zodac' Prismatic Box Binoculars

I’m just spitballing here. I don’t know the exact model of his camera or how he modified it. I’m terribly curious, though. I wish the binocamera had been included in the sale just so I could see it.

There are a few pictures from his travels to China and Hong Kong in the album as well. The estimate was £3,000 – 4,000, but Bonham’s doesn’t say what it actually sold for, so the album either didn’t sell of the catalog hasn’t been updated after sale.

The latter is unlikely. People bid over the internet these days, so the auction sites update the data in real time.

2 thoughts on “The first candid photos ever taken in Japan

  1. Hmmm. I also would like to see a pic of the camera. It seems he didn’t make it himself though, but purchased it already disguised. One nifty thing I ran across is that it shot pics at right angles! Other than that, all I could find is that it had Zeiss lenses, but wasn’t that pretty much the only top of the line optics manufacturer back then? I’m pretty sure that Zeiss was all muddled up in astronomy equipment then as well. Anyhoo.

    I won’t fill this with a longass link but if you go to Google Books and search his name, click on ‘The American annual of photography, Volume 25’ you will find a bit he wrote in it regarding the difficulty of photographing people in other countries. Near the top of page 264 he gives a sort-of description of the camera, which is where I learned the above stuff.

    I will keep looking for pics and/or more info on this supposed ‘binocamera’

    1. Outstanding work, Mr Lemming. I didn’t even think to search Google Books. :notworthy:

      I’m amazed that hidden cameras were commercially viable enough for them to widely manufactured instead of customized.

      Zeiss was indeed a top binocular producer at the time, you are correct. They patented one of the prism designs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.