One of the most fascinating chapters in American art from the first half of the 20th century is also among the least known. The details of its efflorescence may never be fully grasped, regardless of how relatively recent the events. But an absorbing, must-see exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum goes far in bringing the episode back into long-awaited view.
Simply put: Issei photographers, most of whom immigrated to Los Angeles from Japan while still in their teens, went on to make some of the most adventurous avant-garde photographs in the years between the two World Wars.
The relatively brief interwar period is commonly regarded as one of the richest in international photographic history. Move over, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Albert Renger-Patzsch. Make a bit of room for Shigemi Uyeda, Kentaro Nakamura and several more.
Their work was widely shown in the 1920s and 1930s, often receiving critical accolades and winning prizes in important exhibitions throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. The artists regularly published in influential photography journals, while their active participation in an international dialogue about cutting-edge art far surpassed anything that fellow L.A. artists such as painters Henrietta Shore or Lorser Feitelson could imagine. No less a photography colleague than Edward Weston was a fan.
"Making Waves: Japanese American Photography, 1920-1940" chronicles the often-exceptional camera work of 40 artists. We'll never know the full extent of their achievement, but individual photographs are nothing less than great.
The title's end-date suggests why we know so little of them today. Tragedy and heartbreak are responsible for nearly erasing this extraordinary Modernist movement from our collective memory.
Within days of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the West Coast was declared a theater of war. Cameras were quickly designated as contraband for "enemy aliens." When Japanese Americans were rounded up for relocation to concentration camps, most of the photographers' work was destroyed, hidden away or otherwise lost. Relatively little remains.
Toyo Miyatake is the best-known name among the assembled crew. However, his reputation rests primarily on the intimate documentary pictures he made — often on the sly — of the wartime internment camp at Manzanar. The exhibition predates that shameful period, so its focus on Miyatake's work is different.
In addition to his 1927 photographs of celebrated modern dancer Michio Ito, three experiments in pure abstraction from 1931 are included. Great swirls of blurred luminescence burst through deep blackness, creating a gestural abstraction. The earlier pictures show a dancer posing, but these later studies record only movement.
"Light Study #2" is especially revealing, a loop composed of two interlocking curves of swooping luminosity. If the irregular circle looks familiar, that's because the form is surely based on Sumi-e, traditional Japanese ink painting. It's like a photographic negative of a classic 17th century painting of a sacred circle by the Zen Buddhist monk Bankei Y¿taku.
The Zen concept of ens¿ — the void, the totality of enlightenment, the passage from a world of sorrows to nirvana — is evoked. The modern machinery of a camera and light's passage through its aperture substitutes for brush and ink, as a painter would use for traditional calligraphy.
Miyatake's image is emblematic of the uniqueness of avant-garde Japanese American photography. It is a species of Pictorialism, which arose in Europe around 1890 as the dominant style of advanced camera work and sought ways to connect photographs to painting concepts. The goal of adopting a painterly façade was to show that photography was more than a mere mechanical record but could also be legitimate artistic expression.
Most Pictorialist photographs suggest European painterly traditions in subject, style and handcrafted look. Most of these Japanese American photographs don't. Instead, they recall Asian art.
Issei, born in Japan after the U.S. had forcibly pried open international trade, had grown up within a fading agricultural society nonetheless wary of Western cultural intrusions. Yet, as young immigrants to America seeking betterment in a rapidly industrializing new country, they were also eager to look ahead.
Avant-garde Japanese American photographs look forward and backward simultaneously. The ethos of modernity is fused with Asian artistic heritage.
Then things get a bit complicated.
Japanese art had already exerted a profound effect on emerging European Modernism. Whistler, Monet, Degas, Cassatt, Bonnard — their paintings' flattened perspective, open spaces, unusual viewpoints, decorative patterning and more can partly be traced to a fascination with things like katagami textiles and ukiyo-e woodblock prints.
"Japonisme" ran through the emerging Modernist bloodstream. One result: Pictorialist photographs by Japanese Americans look as modern as modern can be.
The best of these artists refined their work by exploiting the technical capacities of the boxy Graflex view camera that was their preferred instrument. They prized the simplest, most straightforward darkroom techniques, such as careful cropping. Sharp-focus edged out the atmospherics of more conventional work.
Uyeda's "Reflection on the Oil Ditch," shot around 1925 at a Santa Fe Springs drilling site, was among the most widely reproduced of the genre. In Berlin, László Moholy-Nagy included it in "The New Vision: Fundamentals of Bauhaus Design, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture," his classic 1938 book.
A receding landscape of circular puddles on an oil field is carefully cropped to excise extraneous elements — including the horizon — and heighten the marvelous patterned design. Piercing the field are parallel images: reflections of the morning sun, high in the sky, and an oil derrick, drilling deep into the earth. The photographic surface is visually intensified.
Nakamura's "Evening Wave" (circa 1926) is similarly refined. The foamy breaker follows a dynamic diagonal path from one corner of the brilliant print to the other. A tide pulls out to sea as a curling wave comes in, both illuminated by the radiant light of the unseen moon that creates the eternal, rhythmic tension between them.
The show includes dreamy Pictorialist photographs that directly mimic Japanese art, such as Hiromu Kira's intimate landscape of thin reeds in a serene pond and Seizo Katsu's tree branches draped across a cloud-covered sun. Some mirror Modern European painting, such as atmospheric scenes of smoke-choked railroad yards by Taizo Kato and F.Y. Kunishige.
But it's the sharply focused, more abstract and austere geometric works that claim prolonged attention. No wonder Weston, who advocated unmanipulated and sharp-focus photography, was a regular visitor to Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California and Shaku-do-sha, two prominent L.A. photography clubs. The aesthetic influence between the Issei and Weston likely went both ways.
One recurrent theme — a single individual in a landscape — is especially compelling.
There's a man sitting on the vast, elegantly curved wall of the Hollywood Reservoir dam by Kira; Ichiro Itani's aerial view of an eel fisherman striding through water; the exquisite play of geometries where a man emerges into daylight in J.T. Sata's view from inside a darkened automobile tunnel (it appears to be the 2nd Street tunnel beneath Bunker Hill, a few short blocks from Little Tokyo); and a tiny, silhouetted pedestrian swept along by the luminous, sweeping curve of a road — a veritable ribbon of light — in Hisao E. Kimura's mountain landscape.
These very formal compositions juxtapose a human sign of a journey through contemplative consciousness — Kira's dam-sitter is titled "The Thinker" — with environmental intervals of empty space. They picture the traditional Japanese concept of ma. The ma is an interlude, a spatial pause, whose experience gives shape to the whole.
A solitary figure in a distinctly modern world framed by a foreign aesthetic also describes the often-precarious, emotionally conflicted condition of an immigrant. Think of the lone-figure photographs as nominal self-portraits.
The show includes several cameras, plus photo magazines, exhibition catalogs and other historical ephemera. Artists — only men, as was the Japanese custom — who worked in Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego and Honolulu are included. But Los Angeles, with Little Tokyo its epicenter, was home to the most impressive group.
Guest curator Dennis Reed has made slow but steady recovery of this mostly missing period a life's work. This is his third exhibition on the subject — the first a small 1982 display at L.A. Valley College, where he retired from the faculty four years ago, and the second in 1986 at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, a few blocks from the museum.
With 103 works, the current show has two dozen more photographs than the last one. Some haven't been shown since the 1930s. "Making Waves" resonates as the often-impressive tip of a regrettably lost iceberg.
'Making Waves: Japanese American Photography, 1920-1940'
Where: Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave., L.A.
When: Through June 26, closed Mondays.
Info: (213) 625-0414, www.janm.org