Hanbeh Mizuno
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DSC_0664 Kinkakuji
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The Gold Lacquer Photographs of Hanbeh Mizuno

Here is an abstract of a much longer article by Marriage, Mabuchi & Ware, published in the November 2007 issue (#122) of
Photographica World

“I have reserved for the last, notice of what is an exhibit perhaps the most interesting of any, because it is quite new. The exhibitor is A.H. Mizuno, of Yokohama, and what is shown is a series of photographs in gold on dark coloured lacquer. The intention is to produce, photographically, the equivalent of hand-done pictorial work in gold in lacquer, one of the fine arts in which Japan far excels any other country in the world. The effect, considered decoratively, is very pleasing. The process has, as yet, been kept secret." - Professor W.K. Burton in an article in the Photographic Times of New York.

Hanbeh (or Hambee) Mizuno was born in Shizuoka on September 1st 1852, the fourth generation of a soy source brewing family. In Meiji 2 (1870) in Yokohama, he learned photography from Shirai, a pupil of famous Renjo Shimo-oka. In Meiji 3 (1871) Mizuno returned to Shizuoka and opened a photographer’s studio. In Meiji 17 (1885) he joined the Farsari Company which was one of the most prominent companies in the making and export of “Yokohama Photos”. Farsari lost its stock of negatives in a fire, and Farsari and Mizuno travelled around Japan to take new photographs for sale.

In Meiji 20 (1888) Mizuno left Farsari to develop his new concept for permanent photographs on his own. At first he pursued photography on porcelain surfaces. However he then turned to the use of the traditional materials of Japanese art including Japanese lacquer, decorated with gold and silver leaf. His first product received an award at an Exhibition held in Meiji 23 (1890). This so-called Makie Photography uses the properties of mixture of potassium bichromate, gum arabic, and honey that is hardened by light by exposure in contact with a negative. Gold flake scattered over the image adheres in proportion to exposure and picture gradation is thus reproduced. Mizuno called the result a Gold Leaf Photograph. It is transferred to the black lacquer ware, covered by thin layer of clear lacquer and polished by the “togidashi” method (the surface is polished using a fine polishing compound).

In Meiji 23 (1890) Mizuno applied for a patent which was granted on 26th December, Meiji 24 (1891). These Makie photographs were exhibited not only in Japan but also in overseas countries such as Columbia, America in 1893; Paris, France in 1900; Porland, America in 1905 - and won many awards. From about Meiji 30 (1897) Mizuno focused his work on the manufacture of Japanese lacquer wares and opened a lacquer production works in Tokyo in Meiji 39 (1906) as well as working as a professional photographer. After his death on June 26th, 1920, Makie photography was continued by his descendants in Shizuoka until about 1965, though no longer as items for sale to tourists.


Mizuno's patent describes a process for producing gold images on traditional Japanese lacquerware. However, it is clear from modern survivals that there is more than one final product. As it seems that Mizuno was in production for something in the region of 25 years it is hardly surprising to find that he could have changed his process as time went on. First it is necessary to distinguish the Japanese gold photographs from the orotone family. An Orotone is a silver-gelatin print on glass, backed with gold paint. The Mizuno process is the converse of this, in which the photograph is produced in gold pigment, finally to be backed by a black surface (either lacquerware, or black lacquer or paint if the gold image is on glass).

From the surviving examples which we have investigated, there appear to be four distinct types of Japanese gold photograph, of which just one can be firmly attributed to Mizuno. They are:

A Gold photograph on black lacquer, on a wooden panel. The back of the panel is also lacquered, may have stiffening ribs, and is either smooth or lacquered over a layer of glued-on fabric. Stamps on the back name Mizuno in both English and Japanese.

B Gold photograph on black lacquer, on a wooden panel. The back of the panel is thickly lacquered, with a simple decorative pattern combed into the surface. No ribs, no maker's identification.

C Gold photograph on black lacquer as part of another item such as an album cover or tray. Usually no maker's identification, but we know of one trinket-box with Mizuno stamps.

D Gold photograph on the rear surface of a glass plate (to be viewed through the glass), backed with black lacquer painted on. No maker 's identification.

In all cases the subjects are either typical Meiji period tourist attractions - landscapes, temples, traditional characters, etc., also portraits in the case of type A. All the type D we have seen so far are quite similar in presentation, and give the impression of coming from a single source. Silver instead of gold for types A and B is known, but uncommon.

A key question is whether all of these forms can be attributed to Mizuno's workshop. The only pictures which actually carry his marks are lacquer prints. We know that he had patent protection, and that he was using a transfer process which would allow him to vary the substrate. We have seen no Japanese gold prints carrying anybody else's marks. However, this leaves all of the glass pictures and many of the lacquer prints unattributed. At present the only concrete evidence is the existence of prints from two negatives in both glass and lacquer forms. For example, there is an image of a deer in the park at Kasuga-Nara of which we have seen several identical glass prints (Type D), and which we have also found as a much smaller lacquer print of Type B. None of these prints carry any identifying mark, but as they come from the same negative we presume they were produced in the same workshop. The value of this is that although it does not place Mizuno as the producer, it does demonstrate that the glass and lacquer processes have a common origin. Our working hypothesis is that Hanbeh Mizuno was the producer of all of these Japanese gold prints.


We took the opportunity of a visit by the Getty Conservation Institute to the NMPFT to carry out some non-destructive chemical analysis of a Mizuno lacquer print. With the help of Dusan Stulik of the GCI we carried out x-ray fluorescence analysis. Unsurprisingly, we found gold. This undoubtedly constitutes the image - with a trace level of silver, as one might expect. More curious, is the content of the lacquer substrate, which contains many elements: K, Rb, Ca, Ba, Cr, Mn, Fe, Cu, Sr, Pb, Ti, Zr. Presumably these represent the pigment filler which is used to give the lacquer its colour.

To simplify the process description, the Mizuno method consists of making a contact print on a temporary glass plate, of which the upper surface is made of gold powder adhering to a sticky organic layer. This contact print is transferred to a sheet of smooth carrier paper (at which point it is "upside down" with the gold in contact with the carrier). From the carrier paper the image can then be transferred to the final surface, on which it appears gold-upwards. If the final surface is a piece of prepared lacquer, then we are firmly in the realm of the patent description, and all that is required is an overcoat of a suitable clear varnish to protect the image surface.

If, on the other hand, the final surface is glass there are two problems. In the examples we have, the image is on the rear surface of the glass and is viewed through the glass. This means that firstly the image will read backwards, so the negative would have to be the wrong way up during the original contact printing. Second, and more serious, we are no longer looking at the gold side of the image. If there is significant opacity in the materials of the original contact print, then the final appearance of the product will be diminished.

Possible solutions to this problem include:

  • Yet another transfer stage, using a second piece of paper, so that the image is turned over again before being stuck to the back of the glass.
  • Doing the original contact print on a coating on paper rather than glass. It would then be possible to do a single transfer to stick the gold side of the image to the back of the glass.

The second of these, if it can be done, would probably require much less trouble and therefore less cost in manufacture. It would be interesting to discover how Mizuno solved this problem.


Some Mizuno lacquer prints have a pair of backstamps to identify their maker. One is in English and one in Japanese, and the texts read as follows:

English: Pure Gold Lacquer Photographs / Inventor / H. Mizuno / Fudoushita, Ota, Yokohama

Japanese: 1892 26th December XNo.1408 for 15 years PATENT Yokohama Mizuno

Sometimes also a label is to be found. One such label in English reads:

THE PURE GOLD & SILVER LACQUER PHOTOGRAPHS This one, I invented, after long weary years, is entirely a fancy new article, quite different from ordinary photographs and guarantee, never fades in its Colour. I, therefore, beg to state that my constant endeavour will be, by the excellence of the wares, the moderation of charges, and unremitting attention to the wishes of Customers, to ensure and retain that patronage and support which I now respectfully solicite. H MIZUNO Fudoushita, Ota, YOKOHAMA

[transcribed as written, without correcting the various errors.]

Examples have been found with a label from S. Ogawa, a Yokohama photographer with close business and family connections to Mizuno. We believe that he was selling Mizuno’s product, rather than making for himself. Some items are also labelled by dealers/distributors, including Kondo & Co., and “Mizuno & Marcks”.

Image Identification

There is a useful website prepared by Nagasaki University for the identification of Japanese topographical images. It is indexed by photographer, keyword, location etc and contains many illustrations of 19th-century Japanese photographs. It is frequently possible to tie down the location and sometimes the photographer of an unknown view. Popular sites appear many times and small variations of detail in the scene can sometimes allow one to tie a print down to a specific negative. The prints illustrated are almost all conventional paper prints, and none are gold lacquer prints. However, it is clear that commercial photographers were using the same negatives to produce multiple forms of output.

Mizunotypes seem to be very uncommon in public collections. Enquiries in the UK have drawn a blank in the National Media Museum, the Royal Photograph Collection, the Scottish Photography Collection and the V&A. The British Museum holds one album with a Japanese cover, dating from ca. 1902, "made of lacquer-coated wooden boards with a photograph inset on the front cover. The highlight areas consist of particles of gold". The item is not marked, but looks like Mizuno’s work.

As there was organised export from Yokohama to the US, one might expect to find more examples there. So far we have located one in the Booth Historical Photograph Archives of the San Diego Historical Society; it is a portrait of General Mendal Churchill who died in 1902. As it was possible to send your negative to Mizuno for conversion into a lacquer print, it was not necessary for Churchill to have visited Yokohama himself – though of course he may have.

A search of the database at George Eastman House found no reference to Mizuno as a photographer in any of the 656 museum and historical society collections which they index, including GEH itself. Most of these collections are in the USA.

In Japan there is significant interest in this part of Japanese cultural history. Of course the photographs were intended entirely for export, so it is of little surprise that there do not appear to be large numbers in Japanese collections.

We would be very interested to hear of more prints in your collections!
A photograph sufficient to identify the subject, a brief description, dimensions, and  details of any stamps or labels would be a great help in filling in more details.

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