Masumi Hayashi has no memories of the Gila River Relocation Camp in Arizona.
Though she was born there in 1945, she was only 1 month old when her parents returned to Los Angeles to restart a life that was uprooted when a presidential order in World War II sent about 120,000 people of Japanese descent to internment camps.
Yet Hayashi’s work is imbued with the memory of that past: The Cleveland-based photographer has captured images of 10 relocation camps. These images, as well as her series on toxic waste sites and of abandoned penitentiaries, are the centerpiece of Hayashi’s first retrospective exhibition, “Sights Unseen: The Photographic Constructions of Masumi Hayashi.” Hayashi’s work consists of panoramic photo collages assembled from a series of individual images taken by a camera mounted on a tripod from a single vantage point. Unlike the work of David Hockney, whose photos are generally taken with a hand-held camera and have a playful, cubist sensibility, Hayashi’s focus is on interiors and landscapes.There’s a fascination with decay and abandonment in her work, and she admits to the element of “grotesque architecture” in them.
The journey back
During a recent visit to the Japanese American National Museum, Hayashi paused before her Gila River photo collage, which depicts the remnants of massive concrete foundations -- remains of the internment camp where thousands once lived -- amid barren land and shrubbery.
Hayashi began the internment camp series, almost serendipitously, at this unmarked location in the Arizona desert one day in 1990.
“It was at my father’s funeral that I talked to my cousin [who had] visited Gila and told me where it was,” Hayashi says. “It was a very strange feeling to actually find elements of the camp,” says Hayashi, 57, a professor of photography at Cleveland State University. “I think I did a little prayer because I wanted to leave something for my family, my own ritual with the land.”
She also took a series of photographs, adding an additional touch: In the lower left corner of one frame, she inserted a copy of an evacuation order, the headline of which is just legible -- “Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry....”
Her parents never talked much about this period of their lives. However, perhaps it is telling that they gave Japanese names to their two children born in camp -- Seigo and Masumi -- whereas the other children born during that period had names like Amy and Nancy. Hayashi suggests this was their way of “showing some protest, wondering why they were in that camp.”
In the seven years that followed her initial visit to Gila River, Hayashi continued her work, launching her own sort of protest. She visited all 10 relocation sites -- traveling on weekends and on holidays -- and shot photographs.
“There is the sense that Masumi’s approach to her work is informed by her experiences as a Japanese American,” says Karin Higa, the museum’s curatorial and exhibitions director. “There’s a skepticism about official narratives. There’s the suggestion of dysfunction between what you see and what you know -- what you can find out.”
Developing her style
Hayashi grew up in Watts, where her parents ran a grocery store. She moved to Florida in 1964 after she married. In the mid-1970s, when she was attending graduate school at Florida State University, she began experimenting with collaged photographs.
In the next decade she established the style of photography for which she is now known -- a systematic way of taking multiple exposures and assembling them into panoramic scenes. She also began tackling thematic series with disquieting undertones -- institutional decay, environmental pollution, the thin line between life and death.
The process of putting together her images, Hayashi says, takes many steps. Using a camera on a tripod, she takes a series of overlapping pictures along the horizon line -- her “baseline” -- then takes a series of parallel shots above and below. After she gets back her 4-by-6 prints, she pieces them together. Some, like “Manzanar Relocation Camp, Guard Gate,” provide more than a 360-degree overview of a scene.
In the late 1980s, while finishing a series on postindustrial sites, she became intrigued by old prisons and toxic waste sites designated for EPA cleanup.
The idea for the waste sites came about after she read a newspaper article about a quarry just outside Cleveland that for two years had become a depository for “pickle liquor,” a toxic combination of sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid, that was dumped by a steel mill. The waste was seeping into the nearby Black River. Hayashi persuaded the author of the article to show her the location. She later crawled through a hole in a fence to shoot the scene. The result was a pristine-looking rock quarry surrounded by the reds and yellows of fall foliage, the water brilliantly reflecting the blue sky.
“I wanted the colors,” she says. “I wanted it to look radiated.” There’s an irony in this beauty, she points out, as the water is poisonous and fish in it have mutated.
Another site --the infirmary of the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia -- proved difficult to access.
“I tried for four years to get in there,” she says. But it wasn’t until a historical society commissioned her to do a photograph that she was allowed in.
For several weekends, Hayashi wandered around the site, shooting test shots, before she finally captured an image of the hauntingly blue-toned interior -- a dilapidated metal bed frame on the left, rubble-strewn floors and peeling walls undulating to a doorway on the right. An eerie turquoise light cast by a blue gel over the high windows in the room is exaggerated on film, but Hayashi decided to keep the distortion rather than try to correct the color.
Hayashi’s series of photo collages have been shown in exhibitions in Ohio, Florida and Nevada, and are part of the permanent collections of such institutions as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Victoria and Albert in London, and Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.
Higa found Hayashi’s work about a decade ago, but seeing the progression of the photographer’s work inspired the curator to put together a show.
“I think it’s a combination of her form -- the way she makes these works in a photo collage -- and her subject,” says Higa, in explaining the appeal of Hayashi’s work. “It’s interesting that she works in series; it becomes a mini-journey. It’s the relationship of the many parts to the whole, about the inability of the single photograph to capture the whole.”
The exhibition, which runs through Sept. 14, also includes several portraits, taken with a hand-held camera, of elderly Japanese Americans Hayashi profiled as part of a Civil Liberties Public Education grant from the federal government. Fumi Hayashida, who was the subject of a famous 1942 photograph as she carried her sleeping child to a camp, is shown in three scenes taken in her garden. Novelist Joy Kogawa is shown through a series of photographs of her hands examining mementoes from the concentration camp days.
Recently, Hayashi has turned her focus to Asia. With funding from a Fulbright fellowship, she completed a series on temples and ritual sites in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, India and Nepal. Four works, included in the Japanese American National Museum exhibition, will be featured at the White Room Gallery in West Hollywood from July 10 to Aug. 16. She is especially fond of a photo collage taken by the banks of the Ganges in which the central figure, seen from behind, is a woman dressed in a magically brilliant fuchsia sari.
“There’s so much variety of pilgrimage and ritual by the Ganges,” Hayashi says. “People love it because it’s so spiritual.”
But the work captures both beauty and tragedy: As Hayashi points out, the river behind is muddy, and to the right, unseen by the eye, is a funeral pyre, where bodies are being cremated. As she says, “What we’re living with is not always on the surface.”
Where: Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. 1st St., Little Tokyo, L.A.
When: Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m.-
8 p.m., Fridays and Sundays,
10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Ends: Sept. 14
Contact: (213) 625-0414