General View of Kobe
Philip Queen, Swarthmore College, Class of 2016
General View of Kobe is a lantern slide by Japanese photographer T. Takagi that features an elevated view of the city looking out towards the harbor. It belongs to the E. Raymond Wilson collection, and though undated, was purchased in either 1926 or 1927 while Wilson toured Japan. The black-and-white slide was hand-tinted with color, most likely by workers rather than Takagi himself. Taken from one of the mountains surrounding the city, the slide features buildings on its bottom edge just visible through the tree tops. Above the trees, a view opens up of the dense city, which extends beyond the side borders of the photograph and consists mostly of small, low home-like buildings and much bigger, taller modern buildings that resemble factories or apartment complexes. These larger buildings are colored in various shades of yellow, orange, and red with blue roofs, while the smaller buildings are left uncolored. Behind the city lays the light blue harbor filled with large ships. To the right are glimpses of uninhabited land extending out, and on the left side reaches out a dock into the harbor. The water extends to the horizon, where it blends in with the sunrise and the sky.
Many of the formal qualities of the slide are products of its medium. Despite the large depth of field, which allows the whole image to be in focus, the low definition resulting from the technology of the time leaves the forms blurry. The photographic process also flattens the forms and decreases the apparent distance between objects, especially so for the trees and the cityscape, which despite a great physical distance appear to be adjacent. The spacing between objects, however, helps add some distance to the picture, as the crowded foreground of the trees and dense city opens up to the wide expanses of the sea and sky. As the congested composition expands backwards to the open sea, it leads the eye away from the cluttered city, giving a strong sense of distance between the horizon and the city. In terms of general composition, the visual weight of the large building to the bottom left of the slide is balanced out by the land jutting out in the top right, and the whole picture is framed by the trees at the bottom and sky at the top, which gives the impression that the slide is giving a more or less complete representation of the city.
While much of the formal qualities of the piece were determined by the photographic medium, color decidedly was not. The trees in the foreground are colored in dark, suppressed tones, while the buildings, sky, and sea are colored in light pastels, which gives the colors an unnatural look to them, as if the colors from two different times of day were combined into one photograph. This suggests that the colors are expressive, rather than naturalistic. Furthermore, there is nothing in the lighting of the picture to suggest that it was taken at sunrise, making it seem that the sunrise was simply added with colors for the effect. Significantly, only the large, modern building, city landmarks, and ships are colored, while the majority of the city, apparently the older, less grandiose parts, is left in black and white. The bright colors of the tinted places pull attention towards themselves, which make the uncolored places fade into the background. This selective coloring guides the viewer's eyes through the landscape in a way that prompts the viewer to notice the colored buildings on the way.
General View of Kobe then acts as a guided tour through the city for the eyes. The change from the crowded foreground and city to open ocean leads the eyes from the surrounding mountains through the city to the harbor. This draws attention towards the beauty of the sunrise and the thriving harbor, and thus emphasizes Kobe's natural beauty, prosperity and connection to the world. Along the way, the selective coloring points out the landscapes and views worth noticing. The pastel colors, along with the smooth textures of the places chosen, give these monuments a welcoming, idyllic feel. This slide then, despite being a photograph, shapes an idealized view of Kobe.
Not much is known about T. Takagi the photographer. Online records from stamp collector George C. Baxley suggest that he ran the T. Takagi Photographic Studio and Art Gallery in Kobe for at least the fifteen years from 1905 to 1920. This studio published low-priced photography books of hand-colored prints, each focused on a single subject related to Japanese life (Baxley, n.d.). The George Eastman House Still Photo Archive has a collection of Takagi's personal artwork, which apparently consisted of hand-tinted lantern slides like General View of Kobe. This collection indicates that Takagi was mostly active as a photographer during the 1910s, although there is not enough information to rule out the possibility General View of Kobe being created closer to its time of purchase in either 1926 or 1927. In addition to the low price of the books his studio released, the medium of the lantern slide, which is easy to produce and can be made in duplicates, points towards Takagi's main audience being the general public (Elmendorf & Spindler). Furthermore, captions for Takagi's books were written in English, which implies that his target audience was Western tourists (Baxley, n.d.).
The fact that Takagi's target audience was Western tourists helps explain General View of Kobe. The primary purpose of lantern slides is to be projected to an audience, so the slide gives a visual tour of Kobe in order to give the audience the feeling of visiting the city themselves, and allows the owner of the slide to have a reference for explaining his or her trip to Kobe. By using pleasant pastel colors and setting the photo at sunrise, tourists will be enticed into buying the slide, and by making the landmarks of the city easily recognizable, the buyer will be able to recognize this view of Kobe. Takagi appears to be even more forward-thinking than that, however. The openness of the waters, lack of a strong horizon line, and port full of ships makes Kobe seem accessible to Westerners. This, along with the historical significance Kobe has for being the first port in Japan to open to Westerners in 1868, sends a clear message of openness of Kobe and hospitality to the west. By making Kobe look not only idyllic, but accessible, Takagi can help convince the Western audiences who view the slide to come to Kobe, ensuring both tourism for the city and future customers for himself.