Pierre Rossier

The mark of Pierre Rossier's photographic studio in Fribourg

Pierre Joseph Rossier (16 July 1829 – 22 October 1886[1]) was a pioneering Swiss photographer whose albumen photographs, which include stereographs and cartes-de-visite, comprise portraits, cityscapes, and landscapes. He was commissioned by the London firm of Negretti and Zambra to travel to Asia and document the progress of the Anglo-French troops in the Second Opium War and, although he failed to join that military expedition, he remained in Asia for several years, producing the first commercial photographs of China, the Philippines, Japan and Siam (now Thailand). He was the first professional photographer in Japan, where he trained Ueno Hikoma, Maeda Genzō, Horie Kuwajirō, as well as lesser known members of the first generation of Japanese photographers. In Switzerland he established photographic studios in Fribourg and Einsiedeln, and he also produced images elsewhere in the country. Rossier is an important figure in the early history of photography not only because of his own images, but also because of the critical impact of his teaching in the early days of Japanese photography.

Identity and origins

Until very recently, little was known about Rossier; even his given name was a mystery. In his own time he was sometimes referred to as "P. Rossier" and at other times as "M. Rossier". Documents discovered in the Fribourg town archives finally proved that his given name was Pierre, and it can be assumed that the "M" in "M. Rossier" stood for "Monsieur". He was long thought to be from France and while he was in Japan he was even referred to as an "Englishman";[2] however, recent research has revealed that Rossier was Swiss, born on 16 July 1829 in Grandsivaz, a small village in the Canton of Fribourg. He was the fourth of ten children of a farming family of modest means. At the age of sixteen he became a teacher at a school in a neighbouring village, but by 1855 he was issued a passport to visit France and England to work as a photographer.[3]

At some point after leaving Switzerland and arriving in England, Rossier was commissioned by the firm of Negretti and Zambra to travel to China to photograph the Second Opium War (1858–1860). It may be that the firm considered Rossier's Swiss citizenship an asset for such a voyage, that his country's neutrality might help him find passage aboard either British or French ships. Taking into account the high costs and uncertainty incurred by the firm and the potential hazards for Rossier himself, this was an important commission.[4]

Photographing in Asia

French Sailors at Canton, 1858. Stereograph, albumen silver prints.

Rossier was in Hong Kong in 1858, and he soon began taking photographs, mostly in and around Canton (now Guangzhou).[5] In November 1859 Negretti and Zambra published a set of fifty of Rossier's views, including stereographs. These received favourable reviews in photographic periodicals of the day. In 1858 or 1859 Rossier travelled to the Philippines where he visited and photographed the Taal Volcano. Rossier was in Japan by 1859, producing photographs first in Nagasaki, then in Kanagawa, Yokohama and Edo (now Tokyo); he was the first professional photographer to arrive in Japan.[6] One of the photographs Rossier took during the summer of 1859, while in Nagasaki, was a portrait of Philipp Franz von Siebold's son Alexander and a group of samurai from the Nabeshima clan.[7]

At the end of June 1860, Rossier was in Shanghai, and it is likely that he visited the city in an attempt to gain permission to accompany the Anglo-French military expedition that had already arrived in northern China and thereby fulfill his commission to document the Second Opium War.[8] If so, he was unsuccessful; both forces had already hired photographers to document the mission. The British forces were accompanied by the photographers Felice Beato and John Papillon, and the French by Antoine Fauchery, Lieutenant-Colonel Du Pin, and possibly also by Louis Legrand.[9] Although Rossier failed even to embark on the mission he had been hired to document, he remained in East Asia for some time longer.

By October 1860, Rossier had returned to Nagasaki, where he took photographs of the harbour on behalf of the British Consul, George S. Morrison, for which Rossier was paid $70.[10] Although Rossier's photographs of Japan were advertised by Negretti and Zambra on at least two occasions in 1860, the firm did not publish them until October or November 1861.[11] Five of Rossier's views of Japan appeared earlier, in George Smith's book, Ten Weeks in Japan, in April 1861, and that July, eight of Rossier's Japan photographs appeared in the form of lithographs in Henry Arthur Tilley's book, Japan, the Amoor, and the Pacific.[12] An 1861 edition of the Illustrated London News included several engravings under the collective title Domestic Life in China, the images having been taken from Rossier's stereographs.[13] One of the photographs Negretti and Zambra had advertised in 1860 became the first commercial photograph taken in Japan to be published, and is the earliest known hand-coloured Japanese photograph.[14]

Thanks to a number of documents of the time, it is now certain that Negretti and Zambra's photographs of China and Japan were taken by Rossier, but for many years it was thought that they might have been taken by either Walter B. Woodbury, who also had dealings with Negretti and Zambra but was based in Batavia (now Jakarta), or Abel Gower, who was an amateur photographer in Japan. The Leiden University photograph collection includes a portrait, allegedly of Gower, signed "P. Rossier", and in 1859 Rossier and Gower shared passage aboard HMS Sampson from Nagasaki to Edo.[15]

Teaching photography

View of Yokohama, 1859. Stereograph, albumen silver prints.

Rossier first arrived in Japan in 1859, at a time when early experiments in photography were being conducted in Kyūshū, particularly in Nagasaki. The city was the centre of rangaku, the study of Western science, and it was here that physicians Jan Karel van den Broek and J. L. C. Pompe van Meerdervoort were instrumental in teaching their Japanese students not only medicine but also chemistry and photography.[16] Neither Van den Broek nor Pompe van Meerdervoort was an experienced photographer, and their attempts to produce photographs were largely failures.[17] Nevertheless, in turn they taught wet-collodion process photography to Keisai Yoshio,[18] Furukawa Shumpei, Kawano Teizō, Maeda Genzō, Ueno Hikoma, and Horie Kuwajirō, among others.[19]

On his arrival in Japan, Rossier presumably introduced himself as a photographer despatched to Japan by Negretti and Zambra, perhaps thereby inspiring a misconception, for while he remained in the country he was often referred to as an "English" photographer. In Nagasaki, Rossier was assisted in his work by Maeda Genzō, who had been instructed to accompany the "Englishman" and to further learn photography.[20] With Maeda and other students escorting him around the city, Rossier took photographs of priests, beggars, the audience of a sumo match, the foreign settlement, and the group portrait of Alexander von Siebold and samurai. Rossier believed that Pompe van Meerdervoort's failures in photography were due to a lack of the necessary chemicals and so he provided Maeda with a letter of recommendation to procure photographic apparatus and chemicals from a source in Shanghai. Both Maeda and Furukawa bought lenses, chemicals and albumen paper through Rossier.[21]

At this time, Ueno Hikoma and Horie Kuwajirō also received photographic instruction from Rossier. Apparently Ueno had originally intended to learn not only the practice of photography but also the manufacture of cameras. The encounter with Rossier seems to have convinced Ueno to pursue photography as a career, but he was so overwhelmed by the technology of the camera that he quickly dropped the notion of making one himself. Within a few months, he and Horie had purchased a French camera and chemicals, thereafter launching their independent photographic careers.[22]

Although Rossier's time in Japan was brief and the surviving photographic legacy of his sojourn is scant, he nevertheless had a lasting impact on photography in the country.[6]

Later years

Portrait of a Siamese woman, c. 1861. Albumen silver print.

In 1861, Rossier was in Siam, where he assisted the French zoologist Firmin Bocourt by taking ethnographic portraits for the latter's scientific expedition of 1861–1862, and in 1863, Negretti and Zambra issued a series of 30 stereographic portraits and landscapes taken in Siam that are almost certainly the work of Rossier.[12] In February 1862, Rossier was again in Shanghai, where he sold his cameras and other photographic equipment before embarking for Europe.[23] During his time in Asia it is possible that Rossier photographed in India; Negretti and Zambra issued a series of views of India at about the same time as Rossier's China views.[12]

Rossier returned to Switzerland in early 1862 and, in October 1865, married Catharine Barbe Kaelin (1843–1867). The couple had a son, Christophe Marie Pierre Joseph, who was born on 30 July 1866. Catharine died on 4 April 1867.

Rossier maintained a photographic studio in Fribourg until at least 1876 and he also had a studio in Einsiedeln. During the 1860s and 1870s, he produced a number of stereographs and cartes-de-visite comprising portraits and views of Fribourg, Einsiedeln and other places in Switzerland. An 1871 advertisement in the French-language Fribourg newspaper La Liberté offered photographs by Rossier of religious paintings by the artist Melchior Paul von Deschwanden.[24] In 1872, Rossier applied for a passport to travel to France where he may have produced photographs. At some point between 1871 and 1884, he married again. His second wife, Marie Virginie Overney, was employed as a household servant by the landlords of his studio. They had a son, Joseph Louis, who was born in Paris on 16 March 1884, and who went on to own a café in Vevey, Switzerland. Pierre Rossier died in Paris some time between 1883 and 1898.[4]


Examples of Rossier's views of Switzerland are held in several institutions and private collections in that country. Rossier took the first commercial photographs of China and Japan, and they are now quite rare. He complained at times of the adverse effects of the climate on his photographic chemicals and some of his negatives may have been damaged en route to London from Asia. Though his surviving images are scarce, his importance to the early history of photography in Asia is great. Before his arrival in Japan in 1859, Japanese students of photography had struggled to produce satisfactory images, but Rossier's experience, instruction, and contacts with suppliers of photographic materials were extremely helpful in the development of an autonomous photographic tradition in Japan.


  1. ^ "État civil de Paris – Actes de décès". archives.paris.fr. p. 17.
  2. ^ He is described as French by for example Yokoe (167). Even the Union List of Artist Names, a research database of the Getty Research Institute, lists "Rossier, M." as "probably British" (ULAN).
  3. ^ Bennett provides an interesting account of the research involved in revealing Rossier's identity and background. Most of what is now known about Rossier comes from Bennett's work. (Bennett's Internet article The Search for Rossier is cited below as "Bennett", while his books Early Japanese Images, Photography in Japan: 1853–1912, and Old Japanese Photographs are cited as "Bennett EJI", "Bennett PiJ", and "Bennett OJP", respectively.)
  4. ^ a b Bennett.
  5. ^ Bennett. Worswick places Rossier in China from 1857 to 1859, but does not provide any further information (Worswick, 146).
  6. ^ a b Yokoe, 167.
  7. ^ This photograph is in the collection of the Siebold Memorial Museum in Nagasaki (Himeno, 22).
  8. ^ The British and French military forces were already assembling at Talien Bay and Chefoo, respectively, in June 1860 (Harris, 17) and it is known that Rossier was in Shanghai on 27 June 1860. There is a further possibility that Rossier visited Shanghai in order to procure photographic chemicals (Bennett).
  9. ^ Bennett; Thiriez. Papillon produced images taken between Canton and the Taku Forts but became ill and was evacuated before completing his mission. Photographs of the expedition by Fauchery have not been positively identified, but probably include twenty-four stereographs of the French forces in Canton, Shanghai, Tientsin and Peking. No evidence has been found that either Du Pin or Legrand actually took photographs during the expedition. Thiriez, 6–7.
  10. ^ In a letter dated 13 October 1860, Morrison wrote, "... considering that M. Rossier's time is specifically devoted to other purposes, and that he was occupied with them for several days... as he is not a tradesman here for the sale of photographs, [I] was not in a position to bargain..." (Bennett). Seventy dollars was a substantial sum; to put it in some perspective, fourteen years later Henry Smith Munroe, an American employee of the Japanese government, was considering buying a complete set of 500 photographs by Uchida Kuichi that cost $250 or three-quarters of Munroe's monthly salary as a well-paid foreign advisor (Dobson, 20; Clark, Fraser, and Osman, 137–138).
  11. ^ In the edition of 28 May 1860 of The Times there appeared an advertisement for a "full coloured" stereograph of "Japanese ladies in full dress" by Rossier. An advertisement in The Times, 3 October 1860, referred to the "expected" arrival of "photographs from Japan – A case of rare and curious photographs of the scenery of this interesting country, and illustrative of the manners and customs of the Japanese tribes, which have been executed by a special artist sent out for the purpose by the enterprising firm of Negretti and Zambra of London". Bennett speculates that Negretti and Zambra may have delayed publishing the images because of problems with the quality of the negatives, either because they were damaged in transit or because of Rossier's known difficulties in finding the correct photographic chemicals in Asia (Bennett).
  12. ^ a b c Bennett PiJ, 49.
  13. ^ Bennett OJP, 119.
  14. ^ This being the photograph titled "Japanese ladies in full dress" (Bennett PiJ, 47; 49, fig. 45).
  15. ^ Rather than Gower, the portrait sitter is now considered to be John MacDonald, a member of the British Legation (Bennett PiJ, 45; 117, fig. 141).
  16. ^ More precisely, it was the Dutch enclave of Deshima within Nagasaki harbour that provided the locale for these studies, with the experiments in photography beginning in the mid-1850s. Similar research began about the same time in the nearby Satsuma han at Kagoshima (Himeno, 18, 20–21).
  17. ^ Even with the help of the user's manual that accompanied the camera he had imported, it seems that Van den Broek never made a satisfactory photographic image and he decided that only an experienced photographer would be able to teach the use of the camera. Pompe van Meerdervoort was hardly more successful; one result of his experiments was described by Matsumoto Jun as "a meagre black shadow" (Himeno, 21–22).
  18. ^ Keisai was an uncle and teacher of the photographer Uchida Kuichi (Himeno, 24–25).
  19. ^ Himeno, 21–22.
  20. ^ Matsumoto Jun ordered Maeda to assist Rossier. Yet another link between Matsumoto and photography dates from some point between 1857 and 1859 when he adopted the 13-year-old future photographer Uchida Kuichi (Bennett EJI, 54).
  21. ^ Himeno, 21–22. Maeda and Furukawa succeeded in taking a photograph with these materials on 28 October 1860, a day still commemorated in Fukuoka where the photograph was taken (Himeno, 22)
  22. ^ Himeno, 22. Ueno went on to become one of the most important and successful photographers in nineteenth century Japan.
  23. ^ The equipment listed in the advertisement include: a patent mahogany folding camera, a Ross portrait lens, and a Ross landscape lens – all in a portable case, a portable mahogany tripod, a travelling case "with all the necessary apparatus," a large fresh supply of chemicals ("just received from London"), and two practical works on photography (Bennett PiJ, 49).
  24. ^ Bennett OJP, 120.


  • Bennett, Terry. Early Japanese Images. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1996.ISBN 0-8048-2033-3 (paper),ISBN 0-8048-2029-5 (hard)
  • Bennett, Terry. Old Japanese Photographs: Collector's Data Guide London: Quaritch, 2006.ISBN 0-9550852-4-1 (hard)
  • Bennett, Terry. Photography in Japan: 1853–1912 Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 2006.ISBN 0-8048-3633-7 (hard)
  • Bennett, Terry. The Search for Rossier: Early Photographer of China and Japan. Accessed 12 September 2006; cited above as "Bennett". Originally appeared in The PhotoHistorian-Journal of the Historical Group of the Royal Photographic Society, December 2004.
  • Clark, John, John Fraser, and Colin Osman. "A revised chronology of Felice (Felix) Beato (1825/34?–1908?)". In Japanese Exchanges in Art, 1850s to 1930s with Britain, Continental Europe, and the USA: Papers and Research Materials. Sydney: Power Publications, 2001.ISBN 1-86487-303-5
  • Dobson, Sebastian. "Yokohama Shashin". In Art and Artifice: Japanese Photographs of the Meiji Era — Selections from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston: MFA Publications, 2004.ISBN 0-87846-682-7 (paper),ISBN 0-87846-683-5 (hard)
  • Harris, David. Of Battle and Beauty: Felice Beato's Photographs of China. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1999.ISBN 0-89951-100-7 (paper),ISBN 0-89951-101-5 (hard)
  • Himeno, Junichi. "Encounters With Foreign Photographers: The Introduction and Spread of Photography in Kyushu". In Reflecting Truth: Japanese Photography in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, Mikiko Hirayama. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2004.ISBN 90-74822-76-2
  • Thiriez, Régine. Barbarian Lens: Western Photographers of the Qianlong Emperor's European Palaces. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1998.ISBN 90-5700-519-0
  • Union List of Artist Names, s.v. "Rossier, M.". Accessed 15 September 2006.
  • Worswick, Clark. Japan: Photographs 1854–1905. New York: Pennwick/Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.ISBN 0-394-50836-X
  • Yokoe Fuminori. "The Arrival of Photography". In The Advent of Photography in Japan / 寫眞渡來のころ. Tokyo: Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography; Hakodate: Hakodate Museum of Art, 1997. Exhibition catalogue with bilingual text.

Media files used on this page

French Sailors at Canton.jpg
Group portrait of French Sailors at Canton. Stereograph, albumen silver prints.
Rossier studio mark.jpg
The mark of Pierre Rossier's photographic studio, 1860s, Fribourg, Switzerland
Yokohama 1859.jpg
General view of Yokohama. Stereograph, albumen silver prints.