24.06.2019 One hundred and sixty years ago, a young Swiss adventurer creates the first photographs of Japan to be sent to the World

“22 June 1859. On board the Imperial Fleet ship that transports us to Yedo…

In the light of a candle, exhausted by the journey and the incessant movements of a rough sea, I sketch out in the freshness of the moment, my first impressions of Japan as seen in the night. Although we did not really have access to the port of Nagasaki, the doors of the Deshima counter welcomed us warmly and quickly opened up to a multitude of new and interesting characters, Japanese and foreign residents, scientists and traders, dignitaries and coolies. We sleep in comfortable wooden huts, and due to the relative promiscuity of the place, contacts are easy and fast. The geography of the area already tells us about the immense distance we will have to travel to reach the heart of the country, which we do not yet see…”

Those lines are translated from a recently discovered letter of Pierre Rossier, a young Swiss man who was sent to China, Japan and the Philippines by the ambitious photographic firm of the Chrystal Palace to provide the first images of the Far East to the western Public in 1858.

The name of Pierre Rossier had disappeared for 150 years from public attention.
All the informations gathered in this article come from the patient investigation of a passionate dealer and private scholar, Terry Bennett, who investigated for over 20 years. He received help from the community of collectors and curators after he published his first article in the December 2004 issue of The PhotoHistorian- Journal of the Historical Group of the Royal Photographic Society. His books on the history of photography in Japan (2006), China (2009) and Korea (1998) have become classics. The provenance of the six stereoscopic albumen prints offered here is the Gimon collection.
An opportunity to evoke the richness and fragility of the history of photography when the patient and curious study of mysterious clues is threatened by the ogre appetites of the expensive and sterile din of big data.
Pierre Rossier. Reception of the British Legation, Yedo, July 1859

November 1855, after visiting the Exposition Universelle, Rossier left France for England on a boat, his first boat trip, aboard l’Alliance, leaving Le Havre for Southanpon. : “My first boat trip, when I was amazed by the splendour of the Paris Universal Exhibition, which I had just left, I went from Le Havre to Southampton on board /’Alliance, a very beautiful steamer with two chimneys, which I kept a vivid memory and an engraving. A ship just out of the hold that was already giving me wings and the desire to go to Asia to discover what I had seen at the Exhibition. Today it’s a new race against time, and the headwinds are making life difficult for us. The stories of English explorers read in London after my first meeting with Negretti come back to me. How excessive, rude and romantic they seemed to me at the time! » (mon premier voyage en bateau, quand tout émerveillé par les fastes de l’Exposition Universelle de Paris, que je venais de quitter, j’allais du Havre à Southampton à bord de /’Alliance, un très beau vapeur à deux cheminées dont j’ai gardé un vif souvenir et une gravure. Un navire à peine sorti de cale qui me donnait déjà des ailes et l’envie d’aller découvrir en Asie ce que j’avais entrevu à l’Exposition. Aujourd’hui c’est une nouvelle course contre la montre, et les vents contraires nous mènent la vie dure. Les récits des explorateurs anglais lus à Londres après ma première rencontre avec Negretti, me reviennent en mémoire. Combien ils me paraissaient alors excessifs, grossiers et romanesques! ).

He has a first meeting with Henry Negretti, who gave him the job and a list of books by English travellers and sailors to read.

Negretti and Zambra was a company that produced scientific (philosophical) and optical instruments and also operated a photographic studio based in London, England. Henry Negretti (1818–1879) and Joseph Zambra (1822–1897) formed a partnership in 1850, thereby founding the firm which would eventually be appointed opticians and scientific instrument makers to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and King Edward VII, the Royal Observatory and the British Admiralty. (Both Negretti and Zambra were born in Italy.)

When the Crystal Palace was re-erected in Sydenham in 1854, Negretti and Zambra became the official photographers of the Crystal Palace Company, which allowed them to photograph the interior and grounds of the new building. The firm made use of this access to produce a number of stereographs.

… On the 19th October 1855, Rossier was issued with a passport for three years. The passport noted his occupation as a photographer, living in Bulle, and that he intended to practice his profession in France and England. Rossier was aged 26 and described as 5 feet 3 inches tall (1.6 metres) with brown hair and grey eyes. Rossier was away for seven years and would return only in late 1862.
Stereograph means some delay: watch the dog

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Access to Terry Bennett’s online article :


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