Woman? Or Man? Beato’s Snow Beauty ベアトの雪中美人

If you live in Tokyo, you’ve probably seen the photo above on posters advertising the ongoing Felice Beato exhibit at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. It was taken around 1868 by Beato, one of the first photographers to record Japan. The print belongs to the J. Paul Getty Museum and is titled “Woman in Winter Dress.”

At a press tour last month, curator Mitsui Keishi 三井圭司 tantalized reporters by suggesting that the figure in the photo might, just might, actually be a man! “Look at the feet,” he said, inviting us to move in closer. (For my review of the exhibit in The Japan Times, click here.)

Many of the reporters agreed that the feet were too gacchiri ガッチリ(big and solid) to be a woman’s. Mitsui-san noted that Beato was fussy about his models and didn’t use just any Joe or ho off the street. (I’m paraphrasing a little.) For a series of photographs portraying various occupations (fortune teller, doctor, sumo wrestler), Beato seems to have used people actually engaged in that line of work.

Now for “Woman in Winter Dress,” Beato needed a model who could express cold and wind, and hold the pose without moving for the tens of seconds necessary for exposure. In other words, someone with stage experience. And in those days, professional actors were all men.

Visit the museum by May 5 if you want to see for yourself. But one thing is certain: the photograph borrows from an established theme in Japanese art: Beauties in Snow (secchu bijin 雪中美人), some examples of which I’ve posted below. Beato, who arrived in Japan in 1863, must have familiarized himself with the local art scene by the time he took the photo.

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