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,
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
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.)
1st June 2005
(Updated 1st December 2006)