PREWAR JAPANESE AMERICAN PICTORIALISM
The soft focus, warm tonality, and choice of subject matter all make Taizo Kato's photographs classic examples of Pictorialism, the movement which most defined fine art photography in the early 20th century. Photographers associated with the movement emphasized photography’s expressive potential over its documentary function, often by consciously adopting the look of painting.
In the 1920s and 30s, west coast cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle were home to a vibrant community of pictorialist photographers that centered around regional camera clubs and photography salons. At the same time, these west coast cities were also home to a rapidly growing population of Japanese immigrants. By the 1920s, an increasing number of these immigrants identified as Japanese Americans and forged a unique cultural identity in places like Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood—it was in this context that a unique movement of Japanese American pictorialist photography emerged.
Taizo Kato’s still lifes and nature studies are classic examples of Japanese American Pictorialism. His painterly images are rendered in gauzy light and printed in warm tones on textured paper—all features that are emblematic of the movement. His Tree Study in Light and Shadow, circa 1920, depicts light beaming radiantly through a copse of trees. While a work like this shows the clear influence of 19th century painting, it also illustrates photography’s unique ability to expressively render light.
Taizo Kato’s picture Glass with Two White Roses evokes the elegant simplicity of a still life by the French painter Jean-Baptiste Chardin, both in the way that light glints off the side of the glass as well as the exquisite balance that’s achieved with just a handful of objects.
Kato was born in Japan and immigrated to the US in 1906 at the age of 19. His influence on other photographers went far beyond his own pictures—he also owned and operated The Korin, a business enterprise in downtown LA that encompassed a camera store, a film processing lab, and a gallery where photography was presented alongside ceramics and painting. Kato's early death in 1924 meant that he never saw the full realization of his influence: the formation in 1926 of the Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California, a group of photographers based in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood.
Other pictures seen here demonstrate that Pictorialism was never limited to painterly romanticism. Harry Shigeta’s picture of steelworkers resembles Lewis Hines’s pictures from the period which emphasized the human labor which sustained modern industry. In the New Deal era photography played an instrumental role as agencies like the Farm Security Administration sought to document working conditions that had largely gone overlooked by the broader public.
Kunezu Ota’s picture from 1925 of bales of wire parallels developments in European photography at the time—in the 1920s Bauhaus photographers like László Moholy-Nagy were devoted to a “new vision” of photography that embraced industrial materials and the camera itself as a machine.
Sunlight in the Morning, by Kusutora Matsuki circa 1929, demonstrates the way that these photographers helped lay the groundwork for moody urban pictures by mid-century street photographers such as Harry Callahan, Ray K. Metzker, and Fan Ho.
The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 upended the lives of innumerable Japanese Americans. With the passage of the Enemy Alien Act, cameras were considered contraband when found in the possession of Japanese Americans. Beginning in 1942, over 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated at internment camps. Troves of photographic material and archives were lost and destroyed amidst this persecution.
Due to the tremendous loss of material and documentation from the era, the contributions of Japanese Americans to the development of art photography in the U.S. were vastly underestimated in early histories. In recent decades, devoted research by individuals such the writer, collector, and curator Dennis Reed have made immense contributions to improving our understanding of this previously neglected period.