Shadows of a Fleeting World: the Little-known History of Seattle’s Early 20th Century Nikkei Photographers

The original gate at Seattle Japanese Garden
The original gate at Seattle Japanese Garden

The work of early 20th century Japanese-American photographers demonstrate a quintessentially Japanese aesthetic of shadow-meets-light, which is also evident in the design of our garden. (Photo credit: Hiromu Kira, 1925, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division.)

Shadows of a Fleeting World: Pictorial Photography and the Seattle Camera Club chronicles the amazing story of a group of mostly amateur photographers of Japanese descent who founded the Seattle Camera Club (SCC) in the 1920s. Their story predates the opening of the Seattle Japanese Garden by decades, but their work has a spiritual quality and a connection to nature that leaves me spellbound -- and speaks to me of our garden. The lives and accomplishments of these photographers were forgotten for many years, but ultimately their story was told -- thanks to one of their members (Iwao Matsushita, who preserved and donated many photographs & materials) and the head of the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections (Robert Monroe, who understood the importance of the materials offered & accepted them into the Library’s collection). In the 1980s, Monroe contributed a 25-page pictorial essay: “Light and Shade: Pictorial Photography in Seattle, 1920-1940, and the Seattle Camera Club,” to the book, Turning Shadows into Light: Art and Culture of the Northwest’s Early Asian/Pacific Community (1982). Ultimately, their story was told more fully in Shadows of a Fleeting World – a 2011 exhibition at the U.W.’s Henry Art Gallery, and its corresponding book. I learned about the SCC only recently, so I missed the exhibit, but I found the book fascinating and deeply moving. Pictorialism was an early twentieth century style practiced by photographers who, like many painters of the late 19th & early 20th centuries, were interested in the effects of light. They also aspired to raise the status of photography to that of fine art. Many camera clubs were founded in the U.S. during this era, including the Seattle Camera Club. It existed from 1924 to 1929, and was one of the most successful and influential. Not by design, its founders were male and Nikkei, people of Japanese descent, including first and second-generation Japanese-Americans (Issei and Nisei). Intending to be inclusive, they succeeded in attracting women and members of other ethnicities. The group included many “amateurs” – but also professionals who made their living by photography. Soft focus lenses, textured paper, and striking compositional techniques characterized their work. During the five short years of the SCC’s existence, members exhibited their photographs widely – internationally as well as nationally – and won numerous awards. This international acclaim seemed to be remarkably free of the kinds of racist attitudes that we might expect of that era. In his 1982 article, Robert Monroe discusses three major trends within the SCC:

Turbulent River, Iwao Matsushita. University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Division.

“One of these was Kyo Koike’s gentle backward-seeking romanticism, strongly tinted by the Japanese culture that had so long nurtured him, with heart and camera given over to “holy” mountains, or to quiet landscapes that were never identified, rarely symboled, and often devoid of human references. Yukio Morinaga’s keen-eyed technical admiration for the mechanical apparatus of his day which might range from ponderous steam rollers to kite-like biplanes soaring in the clouds was another influence. More remarkable was Frank Kunishige’s unexpected departure from a routine commercial milieu to realms of art and literature unknown to most of his associates and colleagues. Unlike Koike’s unpeopled pastoral images, Kunishige’s were consecrated to the human form. Whether his models were nude, dishabile’ or stylishly attired, his images were invariably elegant or mysterious and often erotic.”

Here are glimpses into their art, as summarized by several reviewers of the 2011 exhibit and book: • “The images in Shadows of a Fleeting World are a study in evanescence . . . a revelation on several levels, starting with the aesthetically captivating nature of much of the work. The photographs are valuable, too, for evoking a Seattle of almost 90 years ago with visual poetry that transcends mere documentation.” (Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times) • “The book itself is a work of art, featuring plentiful sepia-toned images from the show: cityscapes, landscapes, faces, the play of light and shadow. The ghostly images – harmonious as woodcuts, quiet as ikebana – resonate with the Japanese aesthetic quality of ‘aware,’ a kind of longing for a home that can’t be named.” (City Living) • “Their photographs of Northwest scenery, urban landscapes, and avant-garde artists, such as the dancer Martha Graham, are stunningly original in their use of abstract shapes, the juxtaposition of flat and deep space and subtle contrasts of light and dark.” (Susan Platt, Cassone)

The story of how their work was forgotten is tragic and horrifying. In the art world, styles changed, and Pictorialism came to be narrowly defined and deemed relatively insignificant in the history of photography. Changing economic times and the looming Depression resulted in economic hardship for many of the SCC’s members, and the club disbanded in 1929. More disastrously, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor, ordered the incarceration, in “internment camps,” of all Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. This was “a years-long disruption to their lives that often led to them losing everything they had: homes, business, family belongings. In the case of some SCC members, that meant photographs, equipment and all records of their achievements. Even worse, it was declared illegal for them to own or operate a camera.” (Upchurch, Seattle Times) Much of the work of these amazing artists was lost. The internment also took a horrible psychological toll, and several of the SCC photographers never used a camera again. Some, born in the 1870s and 1880s, died shortly after the war. But I’m very grateful for what remains, and was preserved.

Rainy October, Iwao Matsushita. University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Division.

Learning about the Seattle Camera Club has given me a deeper understanding of the contributions of Japanese-Americans to our city, and to our artistic and cultural heritage. However, If I had to choose, I’m most drawn to the work of Dr. Kyo Koike. Born in Japan in 1878, he emerged as the leader of the SCC due to his leadership, rather than photographic, abilities. His subject was nature and landscape – and he was drawn to the mountains, particularly the “holy mountain” of Mt. Rainier. As a Seattle Japanese Garden guide, I take visitors on a journey through the varied landscapes of Japan – similar in so many ways to the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. Dr. Koike must have felt that connection very strongly. His work, like that of the other SCC members, is a blending of East and West -- Japanese aesthetic traditions and the reality of their lives, the Pacific Northwest of the 1920s and beyond. Koike’s art, in particular, blends culture and nature – as does our Japanese Garden. We are fortunate that it has always drawn photographers to capture its varied landscapes and its many moods.

Corinne Kennedy is a trained guide for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden's blog.