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.

ÒPerpetual Motion,Ó A. Kono, 1931

ÒThe Shadow,Ó Shisaku Izumi, 1931

ÒSunset (Manzanar Relocation Camp),Ó Toyo Miyatake, 1944

ÒUntitled (Faucets, beaker, mortar, and pestle),Ó Akira Furukawa, 1930

ÒThree Roots,Ó S. Nakagawa, 1927

ÒReflections on the Oil Ditch,Ó Shigemi Uyeda, 1924

4•1•1 Lost and Found:
Japanese-American Photographs from the Dennis Reed
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


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