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Photo of the Week #153

Hiromu Kira

Hiromu Kira, still life of scientific glassware, circa 1930, gelatin silver print

Bottles, ca. 1930 
Gelatin Silver print
11 1/4 x 10" 
Provenance: Kira Family—Private Collection, Los Angeles


August 9, 2021

For the next month, PHOTOGRAPH OF THE WEEK will celebrate four Japanese Americans who pioneered the photographic art form in the early 20th century.

Hiromu Kira’s work was a vital part of the under-recognized Japanese American Pictorialist movement of the 1920s and ‘30s. While Kira was most closely associated with this strain of West Coast Pictorialism, the sleek reflections of the scientific glassware share an affinity with contemporaries like Albert Renger-Patsch and other photographers associated with Germany's New Objectivity movement. The composition also shares a kinship with the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi’s tabletop arrangements of bottles—a motif that first emerged in Morandi's work in the 1920s.
Kira arrived at this series serendipitously: walking past a chemical supply shop in Los Angeles, he was captivated by a window display of glass vials. He immediately rented an assortment of them and embarked on a new series of still life pictures.

Hiromu Kira (1898-1991) was one of the most well-known Japanese American photographers in prewar Los Angeles. 

Born in Hawaii and educated in Japan, he moved to Seattle as a teen and began to pursue photography. He helped establish the Seattle Camera Club, as few art schools taught photography. Clubs like these were the epicenter of photography’s development as an art form in the period. Upon moving to Los Angeles in 1926 he developed strong ties to the members of the Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California, based in the city’s Little Tokyo neighborhood. By the late 1920s Kira was exhibiting widely in the US and Europe along with other photographers associated with the JCPC.

The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 upended Kira’s life as it did with innumerable others of Japanese descent. With the passage of the Enemy Alien Act, cameras were considered contraband when found in the possession of Japanese Americans. Troves of photographicmaterial and archives were lost and destroyed amidst this persecution. Beginning in 1942, over 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated at internment camps. Kira, along with his wife and two children, were forcibly relocated to internment camps in Arizona, where they were confined for the next two years.
After their release in April 1944, Kira never returned to exhibiting his work, instead working as a photo retoucher for Hollywood film studios. 

In 1985, Kira’s work was given a revival with its inclusion in the exhibition, Japanese Photography in America: 1920-1940 which traveled to the Oakland Museum of California, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. His photographsare now in many major museums, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, The Japanese American National Museum, L.A. County Museum of Art, the Getty Museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the George Eastman Museum.