New book and exhibit (at the Henry), both titled "Shadows of a Fleeting World: Pictorial Photography and The Seattle Camera Club," focus on the city's once-renowned camera club and the pioneers behind it.
In ways both deliberate and unintended, the images gathered in “Shadows of a Fleeting World: Pictorial Photography and the Seattle Camera Club” are a study in evanescence.
Maybe all photography is, to some extent. But the endeavors of the Seattle Camera Club and its associates seem a special case.
The club was a mix of professional and amateur camera enthusiasts intent on exploring photography’s fine-art possibilities. The club was one of many that flourished across the country in the early 20th century, but it was unusual in its racial mix. Initially all Japanese-American, it welcomed white members too, including two highly successful female photographers, Ella E. McBride and Virna Haffer, who ran their own studios.
The club’s world is brilliantly brought to life in a new Henry Art Gallery exhibit and a book by David F. Martin and Nicolette Bromberg of the same name. Both book and exhibit are a revelation on several levels, starting with the aesthetically captivating nature of much of the work. The photographs are valuable, too, for evoking a Seattle of almost 90 years ago with a visual poetry that transcends mere documentation. The way these photographers see the city, its inhabitants and its mountain and maritime surroundings, is exhilarating. Of equal historical interest is the resounding international success the club enjoyed during its brief existence (1924-29).
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Club founder Dr. Kyo Koike, for example, was elected director of the Association of Camera Clubs of America in 1928, and shortly afterward became an associate member of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain — “one of the greatest honors for a photographer of that time,” author Martin points out. In 1922, future club member McBride had equally striking success when three of her floral studies won a place at the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain’s 67th annual salon.
Her close associates Wayne Albee and Frank Asakichi Kunishige won similar international recognition, while club member Soichi Sunami, in 1930, became the archival photographer for New York’s Museum of Modern Art. (Take one look at his stunning shots of Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille and other early modern-dance pioneers, and you can see why.)
After seeing these images and learning some of these facts, one naturally wonders why the camera club came so close to being forgotten.
Changing fashion in photography is one reason. But the biggest factors that led to the club’s dissolution and most of its members’ cessation of photographic activity were the economic hit of the Great Depression and, even more devastating, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Roosevelt’s order removed all West Coast Japanese-American citizens to internment camps for the duration of World War II, a years-long disruption to their lives that often led to them losing everything they had: homes, businesses, family belongings. In the case of some SCC members, that meant photographs, equipment and all records of their achievements. Even worse, it was declared illegal for them to own or operate a camera. By 1942, the shared passion for photography across divides of race and gender that marked the SCC must have seemed like a pipe dream.
The club that Dr. Koike established in 1924 was preceded by some lively photographic activity in Seattle (Imogen Cunningham and Edward Curtis come to mind). But no formal camera society emerged. As Dr. Koike, who emigrated from Japan to Seattle in 1916, later wrote, “We waited patiently for a long time, thinking that some Americans might organize a society for the friends of photography.”
When that didn’t happen, he and 38 other camera enthusiasts, all of Japanese ancestry, got things started, holding their meetings at the Gyokkoken Café on the fringes of what was then Japantown (now the International District). Most regarded themselves as “Pictorialists,” meaning their goal “was to establish photography as a fine-art medium and to exhibit their photographs with the same commitment and professionalism afforded to painting.”
The painting style that most strongly shaped their work was Impressionism, although Symbolism had a strong influence too. Soft focus characterized much of the work. Kunishige’s “7:15 a.m.,” for instance, achieves a fogged effect not just through tricks of the camera lens, but by printing the image on “Textura Tissue,” a paper Kunishige manufactured and sold nationally out of his Seattle studio. Its crepelike texture adds a fragility to his floral studies, his nudes and his cityscapes.
Dr. Koike’s work tends to be crisper in its rendering of mountain vistas, maritime scenes and more. Sometimes his titles add a metaphysical twist to the image at hand, as in “Called a Home” (c. 1925), where the title lends emotional heft to a rustic, cabinlike houseboat, and “Own Image” (c. 1930), in which the water reflection of a sailboat overpowers what we see of the boat itself.
McBride, curiously, is more under a Japanese influence than many of her Japanese-American colleagues. Her floral studies are a delicate delight — whereas Kunishige’s, by contrast, rival Robert Mapplethorpe’s in their languid sensuality. McBride has other strengths, too. Her portrait of Roi Partridge (Imogen Cunningham’s husband) is a handsomely moody work.
Other key SCC figures include Iwao Matsushita, whose rugged mountain landscapes have a sublime power, and Yukio Morinaga, whose street scenes, especially of Pioneer Square and Seattle’s waterfront, are a loving homage to the city.
One photographer who fits the “Pictorialist” category less neatly is Haffer, the most restlessly experimental of the group. In “His First Growth,” she goes for a pencil-sketchlike effect in her rendering of the wispy hairs on a baby’s head. She also uses photo-collage and lens distortions to deliver perturbingly surreal results, notably in a self-portrait from 1929 and “Untitled (distorted head)” from 1935. Two photographs from 1928, both titled “Male Beauty,” are hazily dreamy nudes, while later works use sharp shadows, glowing light and bold framing to put a novel slant on everything from foundry work to a cowboy in repose.
Hiromu Kira also had a strong modernist flair. His “Curves,” “Paper Bird” and “An Arrangement” are still lifes that verge on the abstract, and even his cityscapes — “Peaceful City — Seattle” and “Chimneys, Steam and Smoke” (both c. 1925) — are composed in such a way that their subject matter, strangely, almost disappears.
A few photographers beg for fuller treatment. The only photograph by Kusutora Matsuki is “Sunlight in the Morning” (c. 1929), a powerfully atmospheric shot of a lone figure trudging up a sunlit alley in downtown Seattle.
While the book takes a chronological approach to its topic, the exhibit is organized by genre: urban landscapes, mountain scenes, still lifes, portraits, nudes and some beautiful dance photography.
One exhibit image not reproduced in the book seems quietly to say it all: Kunishige’s “Three Who Pass By” (c. 1924). Its three figures — a mother and her two children — have their backs to the camera as they climb a city staircase. The Textura Tissue surface of the print creates an effect that’s both gauzy and grainy, with the figures almost vanishing into the stone steps they’re climbing.
Their “fleeting” passage is brilliantly, hauntingly caught — as are, in this exhibit and book, all the worlds these artists captured with their lenses.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com