Since Commodore Perry's "Black Ships" forced open Japan's doors in 1854, Westerners have regarded the country and its people with a mix of fear and fascination.

Since Commodore Perry's "Black Ships" forced open Japan's doors in 1854, Westerners have regarded the country and its people with a mix of fear and fascination.


Rather than recognizing a complex culture with a rich heritage, travelers spread tales of samurai swordsmen, blushing geishas and primitive Ainu hunters as representatives of the "types" inhabiting the Land of the Rising Sun.


Once European photographers arrived, they began printing souvenir images, recasting their Japanese subjects through the jaundiced lens of Western stereotypes.


Showcasing 46 hand-tinted prints, an exhibit at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University examines the impact of art that commodified Japan and its people as tourist souvenirs.


Organized by Visiting Curator David Odo, "A Good Type" encourages viewers to ask how photos initially taken for profit were misused at Harvard 50 years later as artifacts of Japanese culture.


An independent scholar specializing in the photography of Meiji Japan, he has designed an exhibit of gorgeous images that reminds us beauty can be put to insidious uses.


"A pretty picture isn't just a pretty picture," Odo said. "Look beneath the surface."


Produced originally for the tourist trade, about 1,300 prints of Japanese life were donated to the Peabody Museum where they were later archived as "documents" for anthropological study, he said.


"I asked myself why are these photographs here (in the museum)," he said. "I wondered how did photos produced for tourists get transformed into objects of scientific research?"


Subtitled "Tourism and Science in Early Japanese Photographs," the exhibit runs through April 30. Most photos in the museum's archives have never been publicly exhibited before.


Odo said the photos "transcended the intentions" of photographers by inadvertently becoming part of a misguided effort to categorize humanity into different "types."


He encourages visitors to look beneath the images' picturesque surfaces to ask how they became part of a movement to organize humanity into racial and ethnic categories.


"It's not just what the image means," said Odo "but the context of its use."


As the exhibit's title indicates, 20th century anthropologists used the photos to confirm mostly positive stereotypes of Japanese as resolute, industrious, hygenic and sensual. A note beneath a photo of partially nude "Girls in the bath" states "Japanese are an extremely clean race."


By comparison, several documents in the show reveal borderline racist views of Africans and Eastern European "types."


That said, the photos on display portray a 19th-century version of Japan that even then existed mainly in the Western imagination. "As transportation improved, Japan became part of the new 'grand tour' for Western travelers," said Odo. "Early photographers built up a mystique about Japan that still influences Western perceptions."


Pioneering photographers, like Felice Beato and Raimund von Stillfried, employed bulky cameras that used collodion glass plate negatives to capture sharp images on albumen silver prints.


Born around 1833 on the island of Corfu, Beato joined Charles Wightman in Yokohama, Japan, in 1863 and produced his own volume of 100 photos of Japanese "native types."


To enhance their commercial value, black-and-white photos were colored by male craftsmen resulting in vivid yet subtly nuanced pictures of men dressed as samurai and prostitutes posing as coy geishas or half-naked bathing girls.


Odo said each colorized photo was unique because it had been individually tinted by artisans who'd learned their craft working on woodblock prints.


In von Stillfried's marvelous "Singing Girl," a woman with an elaborate hairdo stands with a three-stringed shamisen against a studio backdrop of a country scene.


It came to the Peabody from the collection of Harvard-educated surgeon William Bigelow who gathered the largest group of such images in the museum.


Reflecting the owner's approval of the woman's demure appearance, the lady in the photo from the museum's archives was labeled "A Good Type."


In an accompanying note Bigelow wrote, "Photography is a way to salvage endangered cultural features."


Wall text written by Odo suggests many 19th century photographers posed ordinary people as farmers or laborers carrying tools or produce as props and somewhat resembling Yorkshire farmers in sandals and turbans.


In one case the same man with sagging shoulders was photographed twice, first dressed like a farmer and then as a pipe-smoking laborer.


In several curious photos, two men in loincloths stand together tattooed from feet to neck in elaborate designs associated with criminals. Looking closely, Odo said the photo depicts the same man twice with slightly different tattoos hand-drawn on to the original print.


From their arrival, European photographers reinvented Japan to suit their customers' imaginative needs.


By the time Perry landed, samurai served mostly as administrators or courtiers. Yet Westerners, fascinated by Japan's martial history, bought photos of sword-bearing men in samurai armor whom they considered the Asian equivalent of Medieval knights.


In Victorian England, photos of bathing prostitutes paid to dress like geishas fueled fantasies of smoldering Asian eroticism.


Some of the exhibit's most striking photos depict the indigenous Ainu people who lived in Japan's remote northern islands.


Heavily bearded Ainu hunters and farmers in animal skin clothes were photographed in ways that reinforced Western views of them as Rousseau's "noble savages" rather than an impoverished minority group.


Not always. One photo of an Ainu family noted their "peculiar odor."


Just as they were prettified by hand-tinting, the photos on display convincingly show Westerners wanted a Japan that conformed to their own exotic longings.


But the desire became troubling when scientists who should've known better repeated their mistakes with frightening implications. In the early 20th century, the "types" in the museum were treated as representing entire groups at a time promoters of eugenics were proposing sterilizing the handicapped and mentally ill, an idea put into practice in Nazi Germany.


If samurais and geishas were pleasing to the Western imagination, what of the darker, swarthier "types" found in other lands?


Odo hopes "A Good Type" prods visitors and scholars to consider "the mutability of meaning" by wondering how souvenir photos became artifacts ill-used to endorse racial profiling.


"How do we look at historical documents like these photos? The meaning isn't fixed," he said. "We (Westerners) project our meanings and fixations into these photos."


Looking for something to excite their imaginations, Westerners brought home exotic photos of Madame Butterfly and sumos in diapers. If you enjoyed Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai," not much has changed.


THE ESSENTIALS:


Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University is located at 11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge.


It is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.


Admission is $9 for adults; $7 for seniors and students; $6 for children 3 to 18; and free with Harvard ID or museum membership. Massachusetts residents are free on Sundays, 9 a.m. to noon year round and Wednesday from 3 to 5 p.m. (September through May).


The museum is offering the following events in conjunction with the exhibit:


- Feb. 21: Eleanor Hight, of the University of New Hampshire, will discuss "Reality and Illusion: Japanese Photographs for the Foreign Market."


- April 10: Deborah Poole, of Johns Hopkins University, will lecture on a subject to be announced.


For additional information, call 617-496-1027 or visit the Web site, www.peabody.harvard.edu.