Photographer preserves samurai history using 19th-century technique

Story highlights

  • Everett Kennedy Brown photographed descendents of samurai using 19th-century techniques
  • He aims to preserve history and provoke a dialogue on our role in shaping it

(CNN)Everything is not what it seems in Everett Kennedy Brown's captivating photographic series on Japan's samurai.

While Brown's photographs look like artifacts from the warriors' feudal-period heyday, they document the unique fashions and aesthetic of modern-day samurai.
His subjects are members of a community of samurai descendents in Soma, Fukushima, who keep the fighters' traditions alive today.
The American photographer used a 19th-century technique to achieve the look of the images. "The wet plate collodion process dates from the 1850s and the images produced look old and historical," Brown told CNN of his images, which are on display at hpgrp Gallery in New York this month.
Photographing residents of the town in this style "provided them with an opportunity to think about their place in history," Brown said.

Rethinking history

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster struck Japan's northeast region of Tohoku, causing mass destruction and loss of life.
The damage and fears over radiation forced some residents of Soma out of their hometown.
Brown -- who has been based in Japan for several decades -- traveled up to Fukushima prefecture in the aftermath of the March 11 disaster to connect with the people who live there.
Once there, he met Michitane Soma, the head of a samurai warrior clan that stretches back 34 generations, through 800 years of history. Soma wanted Brown to photograph his community using the wet plate collodion technique he was known for.
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Despite the tragedy, the residents of Soma went ahead with their annual horse race festival that year, during which hundreds of samurai descendents and locals deck themselves out in colorful traditional garb to honor the samurai code.
Samurai traditionally wore a short coat without sleeves -- known as "jinbaori" -- made of deer skin, silk or cotton that could be draped over clothes or armor.
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In one photograph, Michitane Soma wears a jinbaori made of sik. Abstract geometric symbols also adorn his pants, which are known as "hakama."
The symbols are believed to protect the wearer from evil, Brown said; popular designs include dragonfly, dragon and carp motifs.
"The carp symbolizes success, longevity, courage, ambition, and perseverance," he said.
Photographs of people who participated in the festival in the past and the traditional costumes they wore line the walls of present-day Soma residents' homes, Brown added.

One shot per person

Brown photographed 44 people -- some from old important samurai families and others whose families have a strong loyalty to the local samurai tradition -- over a 2-year period.
"We only took one photograph for each person, so for each of these portraits there was only one chance per person," Brown said.
He set up a dark room on location where he made his glass negatives. Each session -- from making the negative to developing it -- took up to 20 minutes, and the photographs needed to be taken while the glass negative was wet. Each individual had to sit still for up to two seconds.
Brown said his photographic series serves as both a record and reminder of a difficult time in the Soma residents' history, and now aims to place the images in a local museum.

Fostering a cultural dialogue

Brown said that since the disaster, many residents of Soma have become more determined to pass the samurai tradition onto the next generation as a source of purpose and identity.
For his next project, Brown wants to explore how the roots of Japanese samurai fashion can be found throughout the world.
"These designs were brought to Japan by the Chinese, by Muslims, by the Portuguese, by the Dutch," Brown explained.
"I want to start creating more dialogue about where this fashion came from, because most people think that it's just Japanese," he added.