Building a new business from snapshots of old Japan

a photo from the 1890s on

I was a little surprised a few weeks back when I stumbled across, a site featuring remarkable photos from an era that most people would think predates photography itself. Many of the pictures collected are from the Meiji and Showa periods, some going back as far as the 1860s.

The site was created by Tokyo-based, Dutch photojournalist Kjeld Duits, who I had a chance to catch up with yesterday to find out more about this project. What I discovered out was that this endeavor is more than just a pet interest or a hobby, but in fact, its actually a business too. Kjeld also operates, a site where interested parties and clients can license these photos. While a lot of the photos are accessible to those who want to dig for them, Kjeld’s value add is that he can go out and acquire interesting old photos at auctions or other sales, and then license in much the same way that he used to license his own photos.

He elaborates a little more about how this who idea initially came about:

I had no idea there were photos of Japan from that period. I fell in love with the photos, but I thought that’s something you only see at museums. It didn’t even occur to me that I could buy them. […] I later found a book with these kinds of photos at a temple in Kyoto, and as my new year’s resolution that year, I decided to find out if it would be possible to buy these photos.

And after just a few days I had already found a way; I found a place and started buying them. It was only later that I realized, “Hey, I license my own photographs, maybe I should start licensing these photographs.” Most of the places that do these are large agencies like Getty Images, or museums who tend to be bureaucratic.

Subsequently he built the OldPhotosJapan site to see if there was any public interest. And sure enough, people bought them.

So far Kjeld’s strategy is to use OldPhotosJapan to drive traffic to the licensing site, MeijiShowa. And while the traffic is still relatively modest at 1000 unique views per day, ostensibly those who find the site arrive there due to a very specific keyword search. Kjeld declined to disclose any sales figures, but he is making a living from this and his other web endeavors.

I was surprised to find that he actually handles the web development and design on his own (he’s self-taught), and for MeijiShowa in particular this looks to be an impressive feat. The database of photos is rich with meta data, easily sortable and browsable with related items listed for convenience.

Photos on MeijiShowa have lots of metadata, and are easy to browse

So far Kjeld says that his clients come from both Japan and overseas, ranging from documentary film companies (the BBC is a client, for example), to restaurants who want an interesting backdrop on their wall. Kjeld also cited the example of a client from Sweden who licensed one of the photos to use on his bedroom wall (see photo below).

OldPhotosJapan originally began back in 2007, with MeijiShowa following in 2010. and Kjeld says he plans to make a Japanese version of the latter available soon, most likely in the fall of this year. Considering that about 60% of his clients currently come from Japan, this should certainly be a big help for business.

Readers here in Japan might be familiar with some of Kjeld’s other work, most notably, another photography project, but with a fashion focus. Currently his company, DUITS, functions as a licensing company that oversees three branches: the aforementioned OldPhotosJapan and JapaneseStreets, as well as focusing on more traditional journalism as well. He notes:

[The first two are] small niche markets that aren’t really of interest to large or even medium-sized companies. They’re just big enough for a small company like ours. But selling to tiny markets like this is possible now because of the internet.

It’s really encouraging to see this kind of entrepreneurial activity in the journalism space, especially here in Japan. Kjeld has put forth a pretty big effort, and it will be interesting to see how the business progresses in the future.

A client used one photo for his bedroom. An unsual, but very cool, use case