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Behind the camera

Researchers explore legacy left by Japanese-American photographer Seiki Kayamori

Posted: July 23, 2014 - 11:01pm
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Jessie Louie, photographed in Yakutat by Seiki Kayamori.  Alaska State Library; Seiki Kayamori; ASL-P55-236
Alaska State Library; Seiki Kayamori; ASL-P55-236
Jessie Louie, photographed in Yakutat by Seiki Kayamori.

When Japanese-American photographer Seiki Kayamori died in 1941, he left behind a view of Yakutat and its residents that offers an intimate, surprisingly extensive visual record of the community he called home for nearly 30 years.

One thing that’s lacking, however, is Kayamori’s own presence. Although his collection includes more than 700 images, only a few of the photographer are known to exist.

Until recently, information about the photographer has also been scarce, existing for the most part in the memories and conversations of Yakutat residents, who have long valued the contributions Kayamori made to their personal and collective history. However, renewed interest in the photographer is bringing Kayamori’s own story to light, and with it, a better understanding of his place in Alaskan history.

In Juneau, Kayamori is also currently the focus of a small exhibit, which opened earlier this month in conjunction with the recent unveiling of the Empty Chair memorial commemorating the experience of 1942 Juneau High School valedictorian John Tanaka and other Japanese-American Alaskans interned during WWII. The Kayamori exhibit, set up by the Alaska State Library Historical Collections division, is located just outside the front entrance to the Historical Collections Library on the eighth floor of the State Office Building. Though it represents only a tiny fraction of the extensive collection of Kayamori’s images held by the library and by Sealaska Heritage Institute, for locals, it’s a good place to start. The images in the library's and SHI's collections can also be viewed online (see links at the end of this article).

Jim Simard, head of Historical Collections at the Alaska State Library, said the nearly 700 images in the Kayamori collection represent an invaluable cultural and historical resource, providing a detailed picture of Yakutat and its residents in the early 1900s.

“As a community portrait, it’s pretty fabulous,” Simard said.

Kayamori, whose first name is sometimes written Shoki (and, incorrectly, in some records Fhoki), arrived in Seattle from Japan in 1903. In 1912 he headed north to Alaska, arriving in Yakutat at age 35 to work in the Libby, McNeil & Libby fish cannery, according to an article by former Juneau resident Margaret Thomas published in Alaska magazine in November 1995. Unlike most migrant workers, he never left.

Kayamori, who was referred to as “Picture Man” by the town’s children, made Yakutat his home until his death by suicide at age 64, two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, after having been accused by the FBI of being a spy for the Japanese.

Thomas, who has done extensive research on Kayamori in Japan and Alaska while writing a book on him, said there is no question in her mind about Kayamori’s innocence.

Writer and activist Juliana Hu Pegues, who has also done extensive research on Kayamori as part of a doctoral dissertation that explores the connections between Alaska Natives and Asian Americans in Alaska, said for her the charge is “inconceivable.”

Kayamori’s suicide came just a few days after he had been beat up by American soldiers, at a time when the US military was forcibly relocating Japanese-American Alaskans into internment camps, Pegues said.

“I think Kayamori committed suicide because of fear and possibly some shame, very understandable as an older immigrant man who was accused of being a traitor and beaten by soldiers,” she said in an email.

Though Kayamori’s death stands as a tragic example of the racism and xenophobia common in Alaska at that time, the photographer’s life and work as part of the Yakutat community can be viewed as a strong example of the opposite: a positive cross-cultural relationship, one with far-reaching implications for a more complete understanding of Alaska history.

Kayamori was accepted as an integral member of the predominantly Tlingit Yakutat community, and may have even been a member of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, according to Pegues’ research and conversations with Yakutat residents including Don Bremner. Interviews also indicate that Kayamori was well-respected — a kind, quiet man with a camera.

During a trip to Yakutat in 2011, Pegues said she engaged in numerous conversations with Yakutat residents about Kayamori — at the grocery store, at her bed and breakfast. Everyone, it seemed, had a story about him.

“Experiences like these tell me that not only was Kayamori an integral part of the community in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, but he remains a part of the community today,” Pegues said. “His photos are displayed throughout town, and his life — and death — are part of Yakutat’s collective history. I really sensed that Kayamori belonged to Yakutat in a deep and profound way.”

Through their research, both Thomas and Pegues have both helped to create a fuller picture of who Kayamori was and what his work might mean in the context of history.

Thomas, a librarian and journalism instructor at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia, Wash., wrote her first article about Kayamori in December 1991 while a reporter for the Juneau Empire under then-editor Larry Persily. That piece, combined with a longstanding interest in Japan, spurred her research, which has now been going on for decades. She will release a book on the photographer, “Picture Man,” in the spring through the University of Alaska Press. Thomas said the lack of available information about the photographer is part of what drew her in.

“The mystery surrounding Kayamori interested me,” she said via email from Japan. “I wondered about Kayamori’s early life and how he came to spend so much of his life in Alaska.”

Pegues, raised in Juneau (JDHS class of ‘87) by a Chinese mother and a white father, became interested in Kayamori while doing research for her doctoral dissertation, “Interrogating Intimacies: Asian American and Native Relations in Colonial Alaska,” at University of Minnesota. She said the first time she saw Kayamori’s images at the state library, she became intrigued by the ways they differed from those of commercial photographers such as Lloyd Winter and E. Percy Pond.

“While I was already familiar with Asian Americans such as China Joe, China Mary of Sitka, and the Tanaka family of Juneau, I didn’t know about Shoki Kayamori until I came across his photographs at the Alaska State Library archives,” Pegues said. “His images were unlike those I had seen from Alaska’s commercial photographers like Winter and Pond, or Case and Draper. Kayamori, in contrast to staged photos meant for consumption outside of Alaska, showed Alaska Native people in everyday activities and at events that were meaningful to their lives, such as weddings, funerals, and ANB dances.”

In many of Kaymori’s portraits, often taken on his front porch, his subjects eye the camera with the relaxed expressions common in candid photos taken by good friends.

In an essay on the photographer published in 2014 (“Picture Man: Shoki Kayamori and the Photography of Colonial Encounter in Alaska, 1912-1941”), Pegues writes that she believes Kayamori’s “outsider” status as a non-white, non-Native member of the community allowed him to sidestep the racial boundaries that frequently existed between Natives and whites at that time.

Taken as a whole, Kayamori’s photographs allow for a more complex picture of how the community lived and adjusted to change, Pegues writes, helping to dispel the myth that “Indian peoples cannot be traditional and modern simultaneously.”

Zachary Jones, archivist and collection manager at Sealaska Heritage Institute, said this realistic portrayal of the community, presented without overt cultural bias, is part of what makes his images historically important.

“There’s certainly a number of other historical photographs taken by non-Native, usually Caucasian photographers during this period. However, with Kayamori being a Japanese man, he was a little more sensitive to the issues of race and colonialism,” Jones said. “Kayamori’s pictures of the Yakutat community and the Tlingit people there feature the people more as human beings in their everyday environment, whereas other photographers viewed Alaska Natives at times as specimens. These other photographers took pictures of Tlingit people to sell them in their stores as a source of revenue, whereas Kayamori was just taking them as a member of the community. So there’s a very different feel, a feel of authenticity around Kayamori’s work.”

Sealaska Heritage Institute holds a small collection of Kayamori’s images, donated by Byron Mallott in 2012. 

The glass negatives for the photos in the State Historical Library and SHI collections were discovered in an abandoned church attic in the 1960s by Yakutat residents Caroline and Larry Powell, according to Thomas. Mallott, Caroline Powell’s brother, brought the collection to Juneau, where funds were raised to make two sets of prints from the fragile negatives in the 1970s. One set is now stored at the state library and the other is at city hall in Yakutat. The process of identifying the community members in the photos is ongoing, Simard said, and was facilitated in part by Zelma Doig of the state library.

Both the state library and SHI contributed photos to Thomas’ upcoming book on Kayamori free of charge, a gift she says made the project possible.

Pegues said she’s looking forward to Thomas’ book, and to an increased focus on the contributions of local and Tlingit photographers such as George Johnson, a Tlingit photographer in the Yukon working from 1920 until 1945, and Vincent Soboleff, a Russian American photographer working in Killisnoo and Angoon. Soboleff, the uncle of Tlingit leader Walter Soboleff, is the focus of a recently published book by anthropologist Sergei Kan, “A Russian American Photographer in Tlingit Country.” Pegues said she’s sure there are others, yet to be discovered.

“When Kayamori’s photos were uncovered in the 1960s, the people of Yakutat had a hard time convincing archives and museums that they were worthy of keeping,” Pegues said. “We now understand the importance of Kayamori’s collection and it’s my hope that in the near future we will similarly recognize the work of Tlingit, Haida, and Tshimshian photographers.”

For more on Pegues, visit http://www.macalester.edu/academics/americanstudies/facultystaff/juliana...

For more on Thomas, visit http://margaretthomas.weebly.com/.

To view the state library’s collection of Kayamori’s images, visit http://vilda.alaska.edu/ (search for Kayamori).

To view SHI’s collection, visit https://picasaweb.google.com/106959281489663118722/PO072SeikiKayamoriPho....

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Mary Peters
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Mary Peters 07/24/14 - 07:09 am
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Incredibly sad

that he was brought to suicide by rumors. I wish I could see his pictures. My grandmother's family was from Dry Bay/Yakutat and I have never seen their pictures.

Kathy Dye
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Kathy Dye 07/24/14 - 08:32 am
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Photos online

Mary: Sealaska Heritage Institute has posted some of his photos online at http://bit.ly/1rPfHHB

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