Old Asia Photography

France and Japan

Author: Terry Bennett
​A 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 ½ 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)

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