Old Asia Photography

American Ambrotypist

Author: Terry Bennett
Orrin Erastus Freeman (1830-1866)
​It has been known for some time that the American merchant, Orrin Freeman, was the first to set up a commercial photo studio in Japan, having relocated from Shanghai at the end of 1859, or early 1860. In setting up his Yokohama studio, Freeman became a pivotal figure in early Japanese photography because he taught Ukai Gyokusen, who would become the first Japanese professional photographer in 1860 or 1861. Freeman also sold his camera, stock and equipment to Ukai for a reportedly large sum of money – sufficient for Freeman to give up photography and reinvest the proceeds in a general store, stocked with goods imported from Shanghai. He then enjoyed a very successful career until his untimely death in Yokohama, in 1866.

His grave is in the Gaijin Bochi (Foreigners’ Cemetery) at Yokohama and the headstone gives his year of birth as 1830 and makes clear he was a native of Boston, Massachusetts. Until now, however, almost nothing else has been known about his family background, his reasons for travelling to the Far East or his photographic experience before setting up the Yokohama studio. Thanks to the discovery of his Will, a collection of letters from a brother (located by researcher, Eric Politzer) and further research into his movements in the Far East and America, it is now possible to fill in many of the gaps.

Orrin’s brother, Albert, was a successful merchant in Shanghai from 1855 and this encouraged Orrin to try his luck in the Far East. He arrived in Shanghai in March 1859. Although he seems to have led an unsettled life in Boston (he was a saloon-keeper before travelling to China) he had become interested in photography and was determined to open an ambrotype studio in China. Bringing his equipment with him, he set up his studio in Soochow. When this didn’t work out, he moved back to Shanghai and opened a studio there and advertised it in the North China Herald:

AMBROTYPES-AMBROTYPES. The undersigned respectfully begs to intimate to the Community that he is prepared to take the Ambrotype likeness in a style superior to anything hitherto offered in Shanghai. Charges low and satisfaction guaranteed. Yang-king Pang Road, next door to Messrs. H. Fogg & Co. ORRIN E. FREEMAN. Shanghai, 21st July, 1859.

A month later the same newspaper advertised a change of studio address. This advertisement ran until its last insert on the 26th November, 1859.

The undersigned has removed his Ambrotype Room to the French Bund, next door to Kin-te-yuen's Silk Shop. Orrin E. Freeman Shanghai, 26th August 1859

Although this makes it possible that Freeman moved to Yokohama in December, it is more likely that he arrived in early 1860. We can infer this from an article written by an old-time Yokohama resident, G.W. Rogers, Early Recollections of Yokohama, published in the Japan Weekly Mail of 5th December 1903. Rogers mentions Freeman and the context suggests that Rogers arrived first. We know that Rogers arrived in Yokohama at the end of December, 1859.

Orrin’s Shanghai studio was not a great success. He decided to try again in the newly opened port of Yokohama, where he was to do better. We will never know what impact he might have made had he kept his Japanese studio going for longer. However, Ukai clearly made him an offer that was too good to refuse.

(This is only a brief summary of Orrin Freeman’s 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)

Using, copying, or distributing computer images of old photographs or pictures without permission is strictly prohibited.