Japanese-American Photographs, 1920-1940

Selected from a collection of 79 photographs that was recently acquired by the Getty Museum, this online presentation of 11 prints provides a glimpse into a lesser-known part of 20th-century American art history.

Mums (1935) by Hiromu KiraThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Formed in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood, the Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California (JCPC) members were a mix of amateurs, hobbyists, and professional photographers.

Untitled (Tree in Pond) (before 1924) by Taizo KatoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Taizo Kato arrived in Los Angeles in 1906 at the age of nineteen. One of the area’s earliest art photographers, he was also a painter and writer. Together with his domestic partner, he owned The Korin, a business with several downtown locations to serve clients’ needs. These included a camera store, a film processing lab, and a main shop and gallery that sold stationery, frames, and works of art in various media. Kato’s sudden death in 1924 meant that he never joined the JCPC, which was formalized in 1926.

Study (Still-life) (about 1929) by Kumezu OtaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The standards upheld by the JCPC were rigorous. Members shared darkrooms, gathered for formal critiques, and mounted small exhibitions. At the time, such clubs were vital centers for mentorship and study as very few art schools offered photography curriculum.

Following initial employment as a gardener when he arrived in the United States, Kumezu Ota opened a photo studio in Pasadena in 1921. Although he was not a member of the JCPC—possibly because he had access to his own darkroom—he did exhibit his work alongside its members, as well as in salons throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan. This still life of gourds has been artfully lit from the left.

Perpetual Motion (1931) by Asahachi KonoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Exhibiting Work

JCPC members’ work was frequently included in selective photography catalogs and international yearbooks. Salon exhibitions in Paris (1929) and London (1933) both featured an outsized number of images by West Coast Japanese-American photographers, and admirers included such artists as Helen Levitt, Margarethe Mather, László Moholy-Nagy, and Edward Weston.

Also not a member of the JCPC, Asahachi Kono worked at the T. Iwata Art Store on East First Street, an important source of supplies and gathering place for photographers throughout Los Angeles. This photograph, one of his most celebrated, appeared in multiple international salons the year it was made, including those in London, Paris, Tokyo, and the United States.

Three Gulls (about 1929) by Asahachi KonoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

"Three Gulls" was another much admired image. Kono was particularly proud that he hadn’t staged the scene, but was able to capture the three gulls in one frame.

Three Gulls (reverse) (about 1929) by Asahachi KonoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This photograph bears a label on the verso indicating that it was exhibited in the 2nd Annual Pacific Coast Photographic Salon in San Diego in 1929; It was also exhibited in salons in Pittsburgh and Chicago the following year.

Three Gulls (about 1929) by Asahachi KonoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

World War II

The escalating war, however, brought the club and the members’ burgeoning successes to an abrupt end. In December, 1941, as part of the Enemy Alien Act, cameras were declared contraband in the hands of Japanese Americans, and house raids followed.

Water Plants, Decoration (about 1926) by Hiromu KiraThe J. Paul Getty Museum

A few months later, over 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and businesses behind, boarding buses that would take them to holding centers, and then internment camps. In the scramble to pack their entire lives into a single suitcase, many photographers hid, sold, or destroyed their cameras and their artwork.

Hiromu Kira was initially associated with the Seattle Camera Club before moving to Los Angeles in 1926, where he found employment at the T. Iwata Art Store. Although he never joined the JCPC, he associated with several of its members. During World War II he was incarcerated at the Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona. After the war he worked as a photographic retoucher for Disney, RKO Radio Pictures, and Columbia.

Summer Breeze (about 1925) by Dr. Kyo KoikeThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Dennis Reed Collection

Forty years after the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, Los Angeles-based artist, professor, and collector Dennis Reed began researching West Coast Japanese-American photography clubs. Slowly, by tracking down friends and relatives of the artists, Reed eventually assembled a collection of 79 photographs made between 1919 and 1940. 

Reed’s research also led him to photographers associated with camera clubs based in San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle. Dr. Kyo Koike, who had attended medical school in Japan before immigrating to the United States in 1916, had a successful medical practice in Seattle.

Koike was instrumental in founding the Seattle Camera Club in 1924 and was the group’s primary spokesman, as well as one of the most widely published and exhibited photographers of the period. This image of a lone rower was likely taken in Mount Rainier National Park, a favorite destination for Koike.

Sunlight & Shadow (about 1919) by Taizo KatoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Some of the images that Reed collected are very picturesque and have decidedly Japanese sensibilities—a high horizon line, vertical format, long shadows.

Many photographs were made during nature excursions, often in one’s own backyard. This image of two figures strolling lakeside was taken in Hollenbeck Park in the Boyle Heights district of Los Angeles, just east of downtown. Ringed by trees and featuring an arched bridge—the likely vantage point from which Taizo Kato captured this scene—the manmade lake was a popular destination for strollers, boaters, and photographers alike.

Curves (about 1929) by Hiromu KiraThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Some photographs in the collection depict common Japanese subjects, like ceramics and flowers, while others have Modernist influences.

Along with other Japanese-American photographers based in Los Angeles, Hiromu Kira had the opportunity to view exhibitions of Edward Weston’s work in Little Tokyo in 1927 and 1931. This inspired him to work in a more Modernist vein, which we can see in this study of glasses and their reflections and shadows.

Study #2 (about 1927) by Tomihisa FuruyaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Other photographs, like this one by Tomihisa Furuya, have harder lines and darker tones, further underscoring a Modernist aesthetic.

Furuya was a founding member of the JCPC, employed as a laundry worker, first in Los Angeles, then in Pasadena. He shipped his photographs to and from exhibitions using the Pasadena laundry address. Like Kono's Three Gulls, this print was also included in the 2nd Annual Pacific Coast Photographic Salon in San Diego in 1929.

The Ripple (about 1933) by Kumezu OtaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Although only a fraction of the collection of Japanese-American photographs assembled by Dennis Reed and acquired by the Getty Museum in 2019 can be shown in this online exhibition, the selection demonstrates the parity of these landscapes, figure studies, portraits, still lifes, and abstractions with works produced by avant-garde European and American photographers of the same period. Their presence in the Getty Museum’s collection enhances our understanding of the transition from the expressive, softly focus Pictorialist aesthetic that was prevalent at the turn of the 20th century to the harder edged Modernist styles of the interwar years that privileged abstraction.

Each photograph is an exquisite example of the evolution of the medium, and the backstory to their creation, dispersal, and rediscovery is a significant, if lesser-known, part of 20th-century American art history. An in-gallery exhibition featuring Dennis Reed’s collection of Japanese-American photographs will be organized at the Getty Center in the coming years.

Credits: Story

© 2020 J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

To cite these texts, please use: "Japanese-American Photographs, 1920-1940," published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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