Museum Home Past Exhibitions Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road

December 7, 2010–April 24, 2011 at the Getty Center

Koboto Santaro / Felice Beato
Koboto Santaro, Felice Beato, negative, 1863; print, 1868. Partial gift from the Wilson Centre for Photography

In a peripatetic career that spanned five decades, the photographer Felice Beato (1832–1909) covered a wide swath of East Asia. Following in the wake of Britain's vast colonial empire, he was among the primary photographers to provide images of newly opened countries such as India, China, Japan, Korea, and Burma.

A pioneer war photographer, Beato recorded several conflicts: the Crimean War in 1855–56, the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny in 1858–59, the Second Opium War in 1860, and the American expedition to Korea in 1871. His photographs of battlefields, the first to show images of the dead, provided a new direction for that genre.

Catering to a Western audience, Beato produced an exceptionally diverse oeuvre: topographical and architectural views, including panoramas, as well as portraits and costume studies of the countries he visited or in which he resided.

From Beato's series on domestic Japanese society, the full-length portrait shown here depicts the traditional armored costume of the samurai, the soldier of noble class who served the powerful rulers of Japan.

Sultan Ahmed's Mosque / Felice Beato
Sultan Ahmed's Mosque, Felice Beato, 1855–57

Early Work, about 1855–57

Beato's involvement with photography likely began in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) through his collaboration with James Robertson (1813–88), who became his brother-in-law in 1855. Superintendent of the Imperial Mint, Robertson opened one of the first commercial photography studios in the capital between 1854 and 1856.

In Constantinople Robertson and Beato focused on architecture, such as the mosque of Sultan Ahmed built in the 1600s, a masterpiece of the Islamic period.

From Robertson, Beato learned the albumen glass-plate negative process, noteworthy for the sharpness of its images. In 1856 he assisted Robertson in covering the final days of the Crimean War, a three-year conflict in which Britain and France joined the Ottoman sultan to oppose Russian strategic interests in the region.

Beato's experience in the Crimea was decisive for his career. There he learned to make photographs in extreme and unpredictable conditions. He insinuated himself into the world of the officers' mess and assiduously cultivated his connections with those men. Such relationships would serve him well throughout his life, particularly in covering military campaigns in India, China, and Burma (present-day Myanmar).

Interior of the Secundrabagh after the Slaughter / Felice Beato
Interior of the Secundrabagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels, Lucknow, Felice Beato, 1858. Partial gift from the Wilson Centre for Photography

India, 1858–60

In 1857 the Indian Mutiny, or First War of Independence, challenged British dominance on the subcontinent for the first time. The rebellion and its brutal suppression by British troops were widely covered by the press.

Eager to take advantage of Western interest in the conflict, Beato arrived in India in February 1858 to record the rebellion's aftermath. Guided by military officers, he made images of the mutiny's main sites—Delhi, Cawnpore, and Lucknow—that he sequenced and captioned to re-create the primary events.

In some views, such as the one shown here, he added rebel corpses to increase the dramatic effect. He arranged disinterred bones in the foreground in order to dramatically depict the massive slaughter that occurred at Lucknow.

Based in Calcutta, Beato spent more than two years in India. He traveled widely in the northern part of the country and expanded his oeuvre with architectural views of Agra, Benares (present-day Varanasi), and Muritsur (present-day Amritsar).

Treasury Street, Canton / Felice Beato
Treasury Street, Canton, Felice Beato, negative, April 1860; print by Henry Hering, 1862. Partial gift from the Wilson Centre for Photography

China, 1860

In 1860 Beato accompanied French and British troops on the definitive campaign of the Second Opium War. A culmination of diplomatic difficulties and trade disputes, the Opium Wars had begun in 1839 after British merchants illegally imported opium into China from India.

During his eight-month trek, Beato carried the cumbersome equipment needed for the albumen process: chemicals and large, fragile glass plates. Under extreme wartime conditions, he made a series of photographs that documented the progress of the military campaign, including gruesome scenes taken immediately after battle.

Beato also took the opportunity to make architectural views of the cities of Peking (present-day Beijing) and Canton (present-day Guangzhou), like these lively shops of Treasury Street.

The Bronze Statue of Dai Bouts, Kamakura / Felice Beato
The Bronze Statue of Dai Bouts, Kamakura, Felice Beato, 1863. Partial gift from the Wilson Centre for Photography

Japan, 1863–84

Beato spent more than 20 years in Japan (1863–84), his longest residency in one country and the most prolific period of his career. There he witnessed one of the most turbulent eras in Japan's history, known as the Bakumatsu period (1853–68), when the Tokuga shogunate gave way to the Meiji reign.

During his time in Japan, Beato employed the wet-collodion method, which reduced the length of exposure to seconds rather than minutes. The use of photography began to spread in Japan in the mid-1850s, and Beato's work rapidly achieved success as he offered the first hand-colored photographs and photographic albums in the country.

Despite restrictions on foreigners' travel, Beato developed a remarkable and rare visual record of Japan. This photograph depicts the monumental sculpture of the Dai Bouts (Great Buddha), which had been the centerpiece of a temple that was destroyed by a typhoon. It was an important attraction at Kamakura, and Beato was the first Westerner to photograph it. He posed himself in the scene, sitting on the stairs, while local men climbed the statue.

Beato left Japan in 1884, but his photographs continued to circulate with the successive sales of his negatives to different studios.

Interactive feature: Beato's Views of Japan
interactive Interactive feature: Browse Beato's Views of Japan, an album of photographs depicting cultural life in Japan.

The Flag of the Commander in Chief of the Korean Forces / Felice Beato
The Flag of the Commander in Chief of the Korean Forces, Felice Beato, June 1871. Partial gift from the Wilson Centre for Photography

Korea, 1871

Known in Beato's time as the Hermit Kingdom, Korea was one of the only countries then still closed to the outside world.

In 1871 Beato was the first to make photographic images of Korea. He was hired to document an American punitive expedition to Korea, a response to an incident in 1865 in which an American-owned trading vessel, the General Sherman, was captured in Korean waters and its entire crew killed. Five military ships were sent to seek a treaty and negotiate trade relations with Korea. Violence broke out, and retaliatory actions were taken by the Americans. More than 250 Koreans were killed, wounded, or captured.

Here three American military officers pose in front of a Korean flag they captured at Fort McKee. Commissioned to make photographs for the Americans, Beato perpetuated the illusion of victory for this unsuccessful military campaign.

Beato brought back 47 photographs from his trip to Korea, including numerous portraits of military crews and views of the fleet and battlefields as well as views of the local scenery and portraits of Korean natives.

The Forty-nine Gautamas in the Sagaing Temple / Felice Beato
The Forty-nine Gautamas in the Sagaing Temple, Felice Beato, 1887–95. Partial gift from the Wilson Centre for Photography

Burma, 1887–1905

After speculative ventures in Japan ruined him financially, Beato set off for new lands once more. He went first to Sudan to record the Anglo-Sudan War and finally settled in Burma in 1887.

The country was then a province of British India and became a tourist destination for Westerners. Beato quickly established himself as a photographer by traveling throughout Upper Burma documenting sites of interest. His landscapes, architectural views, and portrait studies offer a glimpse into Burmese life at the end of the 19th century.

This photograph was taken in Sagaing, which was the capital of Burma in the 1300s and 1500s and remained the country's center of Buddhist faith. Hundreds of pagodas, monasteries, and other retreats, including caves, are nestled in the surrounding hills and forests. In this temple there were 49 representation of Gautama, the founder and primary figure of Buddhism.

In 1895 Beato opened a curio shop in Mandalay that quickly attracted foreign shoppers. In addition to photographs, he sold Burmese works of art in wood, metal, ivory, and silk, catering to the Western taste for souvenirs.

After a life of wandering, Beato returned to Italy, his birthplace, where he died in 1909.

The exhibition is on view at the Getty Center, West Pavilion, Center for Photographs. It will be on view at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography from March 6 to May 6, 2012.