After a brief rain in Santa Fe Springs, the black remains of oil previously splattered across asphalt gather to form perfectly concentric circles. Shigemi Uyeda, a Japanese-American photographer, takes notice, but the lighting is not right. He waits, and checks back the next morning, hoping the arrangement has not been destroyed. With a stroke of luck and the help of the sun, the circles are still there, looking up and nearly glowing. The image is so perfect that it seems prearranged. It is abstract enough as a photo that the viewer may even wonder what the subject is. Click.
In the early 20th century, Japanese immigrants who came to the United States settled mostly in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Although they all had to work at a variety of more or less menial jobs to survive, a number of them took up photography as a hobby. Some went on to form camera clubs, and from there, were able to publish and exhibit their work all over the world.
When the Great Depression struck, many of these immigrants could no longer support themselves in America, and were forced to retreat to Asia. Once World War II broke out, the remaining Japanese immigrants and their American-born children were sentenced to relocation camps, where even the possession of cameras was initially prohibited. Amid this mayhem, a majority of their early photographic work was lost or destroyed. Japanese-American photographs from before World War II are thus very difficult to come by. Some of the remaining images fuse nature with circumstance, as in Toyo Miyataki’s image of a sunset taken from Manzanar (his relocation camp).
Professor of art and photography connoisseur Dennis Reed has contributed greatly to the preservation of this chapter in art history by tracking down and collecting a rare assortment of the precious photographs taken by Japanese Americans during and before WWII. His full collection is now being displayed at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art for the first time since 1989.
Reed noted that these photographs “are very nature-based, probably as a result of the artists’ heritages and the Japanese artistic culture, which are reflected in both selection of subject matter and style of composition.” One common theme depicted is water — a very significant element in Japanese culture. Kuzeumo Ota’s “The Ripple” reflects nature with an almost Zen effect: A ripple in a pool of water, framed by trees, amplifies outward until it fades into nothing. The result, as described by Reed, is “quiet and void.” Aerial perspectives are also popular, as shown in I.K. Tanaka’s “Asa Giri,” or “Morning Mist.” Kentaro Nakamura’s “Evening Wave” reflects Japanese decorative style with its bird’s-eye view of the ocean, where the horizon line lifts off the picture and the subject matter moves diagonally across the frame. The resulting angle creates a two-dimensional flat field upon which the elements of composition are arranged.
Hiromu Kira’s images are especially reflective of his Japanese heritage. For example, one of his photographs focuses on an origami swan. Kira also takes a unique approach to composition using glass objects, or more specifically, chemical Petri dishes. The dishes are arranged until they “almost become non-objects as they turn into lines,” as Reed stated. Bold geometric shapes, angles, and shadow effects are prominent Japanese devices which are all evident in this body of work. Examples of this tendency include Susumu Nakagawa’s “Three Roofs,” F.Y. Sato’s “Untitled [Tree and Steps],” and Akira Furukawa’s “Untitled [Paper Rolls]”. Furukawa’s photographs differ from those of the other artists in that he takes a less nature-based, more industrial approach. The rolls of paper he depicts appear to be from the Hawai‘i-based Japanese-language newspaper where he worked.
Several of the pieces in this collection stand out for their nearly psychedelic appearance. It remains unknown how Asahachi Kono created his “Perpetual Motion,” in which two sets of concentric circles overlap to form an abstract pattern. It appears as if two people side-by-side are waving flashlights in circles, as the camera, set to a prolonged shutter speed, takes in the image. It is also possible that Kono used multiple negatives or a double exposure to create the effect. Another surreal image in the collection is Midori Shimoda’s “Carnival of Onions,” in which thin slices of onion are arranged to create a different view on concentric circles. Light shines through them as they lie on a black background, as if they are floating in space.
The many beautiful images in this collection are all also very rare, and it is incredibly fortunate that Dennis Reed has gathered and preserved them, and that the Santa Barbara Museum of Art has the opportunity to show them now. One need not be a photographer to appreciate these extraordinary images and their complex, somewhat painful history.
4•1•1 Lost and Found: Japanese-American Photographs from the Dennis Reed Collection will be on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art until October 15. In October, the exhibit will be continued in a second part, Lost and Found: California Pictorialist Photographs from the Dennis Reed Collection, and will focus on the legacy of the early 20th-century California camera clubs. For more information, contact the museum at 963-4364 or visit sbma.net.