Ukai Gyokusen

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Ukai Gyokusen (1807–1887) was a pioneering Japanese photographer. He is important for being the first Japanese professional photographer, having established a photographic studio in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1860 or 1861.

Until recently his reputation has been overshadowed by Shimooka Renjo and Ueno Hikoma’s who nevertheless did not open their studios until 1862. It is strange that Ukai’s significance was forgotten since biographical details are carved on his gravestone in Yanaka Cemetery, Tokyo. Born into a wealthy samurai family, in Ishioka-shi, Ibaraki Prefec- ture, Ukai worked as a merchant in the sake business until 1831 when he decided to become a full-time art- ist. Nothing is then known until he decides to move to Yokohama in 1859 or 1860 with the intention of study- ing photography. His gravestone inscription confirms he consulted the American, Orrin Freeman, who had opened an ambrotype studio and was giving lessons. It then seems that he purchased, for a considerable sum, Freeman’s camera, equipment, and a series of lessons before opening a portrait studio in Edo. At his studio, named Eishin-do, he photographed over 200 members of the aristocracy. In 1879 he was employed by the Gov- ernment to photograph antiquities in western Japan. In 1883, Ukai unaccountably buried several hundred glass negatives adjacent to his final resting place in Yanaka Cemetery. (One of his ambrotypes is held by the Yoko- hama Archives of History, Yokohama) [1].