Back in 1977, Dennis Reed read something that intrigued him: There once had been a vibrant society of Japanese American photographers, including first-rate modernists, but with the advent of World War II and U.S. internment camps, all of their work had been lost. “Nothing survived,” the photography educator and historian remembers reading in that article. He wondered about that.
Reed spent the next few years researching the subject. He found that not only was there evidence of the work in books and surviving prints, but the work was exceptional. “They were so damn good and nobody knew about them,” says a still-astonished Reed, who will discuss his new limited-edition book, “Japanese American Photography,” on Thursday at the Glendale Central Library.
PHOTOS: Photography educator and historian Dennis Reed authored 'Japanese American Photography'
After more years of searching, studying and collecting whatever original pre-war prints he could find, Reed mounted a 1982 gallery show of the work at Los Angeles Valley College, where he was a photography professor in the art department for 32 years. He retired last year.
“It's a story of incredible success these guys had,” says Reed, sitting in the living room of his hillside Glendale home. “They're all Issei first-generation immigrants who came to this country at the turn of the last century and most of them worked ordinary low-paying jobs, and yet they took up the incredibly expensive hobby of art photography.”
From a stack of books on a table, he pulls out a volume he co-authored, “Pictorialism in California,” and opens it to a photo of rows of smiling men in suits, large-format cameras at their feet. It's a picture of the Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California, based in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.
Slightly more than a decade later, the group would be among the 110,000 Japanese Americans scattered to war relocation camps and elsewhere by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The picture-taking was over for most them, and much of what they had already created would be lost for decades, if not forever.
“As of March 30, 1942, it was illegal, if you were of Japanese ancestry, to own and possess a camera,” Reed explains. Relocation to the camps meant leaving something of their lives behind. “You could only take maybe two trunks. You're going to take clothing and the necessities, and they just couldn't take their photographs. Some just abandoned them. Some put them in storage, sometimes with ill effects.”
Where: Glendale Central Library, 222 E. Harvard St., Glendale, in the auditorium
When: Thursday, 7p.m.
More info: (818) 548-2030, www.associatesofbrand.org
Even pictures sent home to Tokyo were likely destroyed, as about 80% of the city was bombed by the end of the war. When Reed discovered the quality of what was missing, he recruited students in his museum studies class to help track down the photographers and their survivors.
The new book is in commemoration of the resulting 1982 exhibition, which was the first showing of the work in half a century. Reed has printed 100 copies of the elegantly designed volume, which has so far been sold only to museums around the world, including the Los Angeles County Museum and the Getty. Next week's Glendale lecture is the first time it's being made available to the general public at a cost of $100 each.
“It's the first comprehensive book on them done in a quarter of a century,” Reed says with a smile. “It's a good time to do it.”