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Taizo Kato & The Korin

Prewar Japanese American Pictorialism Part II

January 20 – February 26, 2022

Black and white photo of the The Koran, a storefront Kodak Store based in LA in the 1920s—framed pictures are in the shop windows and there is an awning that reads "Take a Kodak With You"

The Korin, Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, circa 1920

Black and white studio portrait of two well dressed Japanese American men—one man has his arm around the other.

Kamejiro Sawa and Taizo Kato, c. 1920

Black and white portrait of the the Japanese American film star Sessue Hayakawa, c. 1920

Sessue Hayakawa, c. 1920

Black and white portrait of the the Japanese American film star Tsuru Aoki, she is wearing a large straw hat and a bow around her collar, she is looking at the camera

Tsuru Aoki, c. 1920

Gauzy black and white portrait of a Japanese American Artist, he is posed holding a painter's palette and a brush.

Unidentified Japanese American Painter, c. 1920

Black and white profile image of a Japanese American woman wearing a Kimono and looking inside a birdcage that she is holding aloft.

Woman in a Kimono with a Birdcge, c. 1920

Black and white photo of a pine tree silhouetted abasing the Pacific Coast.

Pine Tree on the Pacific Coast, c. 1920

Black and white photo of ship's anchor hanging over the water at a port.

Ship's Anchor, c. 1920

Black and white photo of man in a straw brimmed hat walking away down a sun dappled forest path.

Forest Path, c. 1920

Black and white photo: Two people are seen from above and at a distance, wearing early 20th century weekend clothes and walking around a pond, under a weeping willow tree.

Path Around a Pond, c. 1920

Soft focus black and white photo of a fountain and a pavilion in a park setting with a large weeping willow tree.

Fountain, c. 1920

Black and white still Life with fruit in a basket. A pineapple and an apple sit on the table in front.

Still Life with Fruit, c. 1920

Black and white still life with vase decorated with Japanese koi and white roses next to it.

Still Life with Vase and Roses, c. 1920

Black and white image with soft focus showing a still life: a glass has one white rose in it, another white rose lies to the right.

Glass with Two White Roses, circa 1920

black and white photo of two Japanese American men in suits in front of their storefront—a sign reads "Art Shop"

Taizo Kato and Kamejiro Sawa, in front of The Korin, c. 1920

Japanse American man in a suit and light colored and narrow brimmed hat, sitting for his portrait.

Taizo Kato, Self Portrait, c. 1920

Press Release

The Korin, an enterprise spread across three Los Angeles locations, was owned and operated by photographer Taizo Kato (1887–1924) and his domestic partner, Kamejiro Sawa (1889–1956). The Korin’s operations included: a Kodak store, a film printing and processing plant, and a main shop and gallery. The Korin's gallery sold and exhibited pictorialist photographs alongside ceramics, prints, and paintings.  The business was located within the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles and, by serving all of the needs of local art photographers, helped foster the growing Pictorialist movement that was emerging in LA’s Japanese American community, as well as other major cities along the west coast.

Kato’s multifaceted activities in connection to The Korin (as a photographer, painter, organizer, gallerist, and technical expert) could be seen as a West Coast corollary to Alfred Stieglitz’s role as practitioner and organizer who championed other photographers in his orbit, as well as photography itself as an art form. Kato’s own painting practice, as well as his work presenting other painting and ceramics at The Korin, exemplifies the way that the conception of pictorial photography was closely tied to painting and other art forms. The inclusion of ceramics within The Korin demonstrates how Japanese cultural influences were being hybridized with European art and regional American influences.  Kato was a member of the artistic group Shaku-do-sha which had been founded by a group of Japanese American painters. The group developed close ties with Edward Weston and, after Kato’s early death, went on to present Weston’s work throughout the 1920s in a collaboration that is generally regarded to have been a case of mutual influence. 

Kato’s own photographs fall firmly within the pictorialist tradition while often embodying the Japanese influence on west coast pictorial photography. It’s an interesting feature of photography from this movement and period that it was at once regional and internationally influenced. While Pictorialism as a movement typically sought to emulate European art, what distinguishes Japanese American Pictorialism is that it just as commonly looked to traditional Japanese art for influence. A picture like Pine Tree on the Pacific Coast, typifies this.  The gnarled tree on the coastline clearly evokes the classic Japanese image of a twisted tree overlooking a windswept vista, familiar from countless Ukiyo-e prints. Bonsai trees have historically been cultivated to emulate the wind-shaped trees found on mountain precipices. The Pacific Ocean stretching to the horizon serves as a reminder of the geographic link between the US West coast and Japan—the body of water whose Pacific trade routes brought Japanese immigrants to the merchant cities clustered around west coast ports.

As a hub for photography, as well as overall artistic activity, it’s not surprising that Taizo Kato and The Korin intersected with the nascent motion picture industry in Hollywood. Kato shot portraits of a number of Hollywood stars, seen here is Kintarō Hayakawa, known within the film industry by his stage name Sessue Hayakawa. At the time of this photograph Hayakawa had emerged as one of Hollywood’s earliest sex symbols and was one of the highest paid stars of his time. While enjoying great popularity with female film goers, his career suffered from increasing anti-Japanese sentiment and he was typecast in roles where he portrayed forbidden lovers and villains. 

Tsuru Aoki, who was married to Sessue Hayakawa, was herself a popular stage and screen actress in the silent age. Between 1913 and 1924 Aoki made 45 films, about half of which also featured Hayakawa. Aoki was often cast in leading lady roles and is considered to have been the first Asian actress to receive top billing in an American film.

Taizo Kato’s untimely death at the age of 36 meant that he never saw the fruition of the seeds he planted, including the formation of Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California. Nevertheless, his influence is clearly felt in the vibrant culture of fine art photography that emerged in the prewar period within Japanese American communities in the major west coast cities.