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A worker pulls a passenger cart over a wooden bridge, Mount Fuji’s snowy peak rising in the background. Men wear long dark robes as they catch fish from traditional Japanese boats, and women dive for pearls in the river. Looking at these photos of rural Japan, it’s hard to believe they were only taken 100 years ago.

The photographic techniques, however, are deliciously retro. Tinted in blue or sepia, the photos are overlaid with multiple exposures, soft-focused for a hazy glow. At the turn of the 20th century, this so-called “pictorial photography” was enjoying a brief international boom. Japan, meanwhile, was experiencing a period of rapid industrialisation which would see it move from a feudal to a modernised nation. These fascinating photos offer an insight into a way of life that was already disappearing.

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Photography is now a well-established art form, celebrated around the world. In the 19th century, however, it was commonly claimed that a photograph could not be art because it was only a depiction of reality. Pictorial photography, which came about as a direct reaction to this criticism, typically includes deliberate artistic effects such as soft focus, sepia tinting, or the addition of brushstrokes.

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The photos of everyday life in Korea 100 years ago we brought you this week serve as a reminder of the unprecedented social and industrial change that has occurred in the last century. The unknown photographers who took and developed these images of Japan, which were collected by Flickr user Okinawa Soba, could never have imagined the explosion of photography that would occur in the following 100 years.

Over 150 million people now use Instagram each month, editing cellphone photos with pre-set filters and immediately sharing them online. Digital platforms and social networks now allow users to enhance photographs automatically when uploading them. When we use digital filters to alter colour or focus, in just a few seconds we have completed photographic techniques that took these 20th-century photographers hours to achieve.

Cormorant fishing.

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  ▼ In this multiple-exposure shot, the photographer has overlaid images of clouds.

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▼ Female divers (“ama”), who free-dive for seafood or pearls.

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▼ Men in boats light torches.

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▼ A man pulls a rickshaw, with Mount Fuji in the background.

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▼ A man dressed in fur.

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▼ Another double-exposure shot with clouds gives a hazy effect.

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▼ Winter mountain climbing.

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The pictorialism boom died out around 1920, when people’s attention shifted to new photographic modernism. Sepia and manipulation were out; sharp-focused images became the vogue. But through the painterly, mysterious qualities of these unknown photographer’s art, we can see a fascinating glimpse of a Japan now lost.

Source: DDN Japan