Ogawa, Elmer (1905-1970)

  • By Todd Matthews
  • Posted 1/20/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21174
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Seattle native Elmer Ogawa worked as a freelance photographer for a variety of Asian American newspapers from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. He produced more than 14,000 photographs depicting public figures, community events, the activities of cultural organizations, and much more. Many of his images appeared in Pacific Citizen, SCENE magazine, The Northwest Times, and other publications that reached readers throughout the United States. Ogawa also photographed the festive nightlife environment he found in Seattle's bars, taverns, and supper clubs. Ogawa suffered a fatal heart attack at age 65 in 1970. Most of his photographs are archived in the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

Early Years

Elmer Ogawa was born in Seattle on November 9, 1905. His mother, Susan Fox, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and moved to Seattle in 1902, where she met Sohei Ogawa, who was born in Japan in 1873 and emigrated to Seattle in the 1890s. The Ogawas lived in a wood-frame apartment building on 9th Avenue in downtown Seattle. Sohei supported his family — sons Elmer and Herbert, and daughter Ethel — by working as the owner of two Japanese curio shops in Seattle: Ogawa Art Store at 1324 2nd Avenue, and S. Ogawa Co., at 1329 1st Avenue.

On July 4, 1918, Sohei Ogawa died unexpectedly, at age 45 and under unclear circumstances. Susan was left alone to raise 12-year-old Elmer, 11-year-old Herbert, and 5-year-old Ethel. She worked as a housekeeper, and at the lunch counter of a Bartell drugstore near the University of Washington.

In 1920, when he was 14 and a student at Queen Anne High School, Elmer Ogawa landed his first summer job, earning $100 per month working at the Alaska Herring and Sardine Company in Port Walter, Alaska. Over the next five years he made trips to Alaska every summer. In Hunter Bay he was paid $90 per month to off-load scows, fill in for butchers, and work alongside Native American fishermen on seine boats. In Burnett Inlet he was paid $300 for a season to off-load salmon boats. In Karheen he was paid $80 a month to sort salmon pieces and nail together shipping crates. Twice he returned to the cannery in Port Walter to fish for herring and work on the docks.

After enrolling at the University of Washington in 1924, Ogawa continued to spend summers fishing in Alaska to support his mother and siblings. He joined a fraternity, was a member of the UW's rifle team, and majored in foreign trade. He worked part-time as a clerk and typist at Western Trading Company, a lumber exporter with headquarters in the Pacific Building in downtown Seattle. During his senior year, he was hired for a part-time job by James Y. "Jimmie" Sakamoto, founder and publisher of the weekly Japanese-American Courier in Seattle. Ogawa was paid $50 per month as an associate editor; he was responsible for writing editorials and headlines, rewriting news copy, proofreading, and advertising sales and collections. He remained at the newspaper after his graduation from UW in June 1928 and was promoted to supervise the publication's features writer, linotype operator, typist, and printer. He seemed poised to pursue journalism. But in September 1928, he gave Sakamoto notice that he planned to leave Seattle for New York City, where he hoped to start a career in business.

East Coast Detour

When he arrived on the East Coast in the late summer of 1928, Ogawa made his way to the Madison Avenue offices of Nippon Dry Goods, a major player in the manufacturing and importing of Japanese goods. It was there that he introduced himself to the manager, Toshi Nakayama, and was hired as a salesman with a starting salary of $1,500 per year. Ogawa hit the road, traveling to the American South and Midwest six months out of the year, attending conventions, and meeting with managers of department stores, chain stores, and mail-order houses. Back at the corporate office in New York, he mined information for market research and scouted for potential clients.

Two years later, Ogawa met Florence Roe, who was born and raised on Long Island. The couple briefly dated before they married in 1931. Florence and Elmer welcomed their newborn son, Herbert Fox Ogawa, into the family the following year. The Ogawas appeared typical of a mid- to late-1930s working-class family: They lived on a tree-lined street in Rockville Centre, New York, in a comfortable three-bedroom home with a covered front porch and plenty of yard space for young Herbert. Elmer worked at Nippon Dry Goods while Florence was a homemaker. Home movies recorded in 1935-1937 show Elmer and his son playing catch, fishing, tossing snowballs, and roller skating. Home movies also show the Ogawas on family vacations: visiting the Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland, boating in the Florida Everglades, and swimming at a beach in Oceanside, New York.

By the late 1930s, however, Florence and Elmer's relationship had cooled. In 1938, Ogawa was laid off after nearly a decade at Nippon Dry Goods. He found a job the following year at Fred Beers, Inc., and was paid $40 per week to deliver milk. By the end of 1939, Florence told Elmer she wanted a divorce. On January 27, 1940, the couple signed a divorce agreement citing "unfortunate differences." Florence was awarded custody of Herbert, and Elmer was ordered to pay $8 per week in child support.

On October 5, 1942, Ogawa enlisted in the U.S. Army at the age of 37. His experience as a salesman and bookkeeper was put to use in the military. He started out on a desk job routing correspondence, selling bonds and insurance, and interviewing claimants for family allotments. He worked his way up the ranks and spent two short stints stationed near the Panama Canal, working as an infantry replacement instructor. After three years in the service, he was honorably discharged on September 26, 1945.

Job prospects still weren't good for Ogawa. Over the next year or so, long spells of unemployment were briefly interrupted by the occasional odd job. In October 1945, he interviewed for a job as an underwriting field representative at a life insurance company in Hempstead, New York. He was turned down; his salary demands were too high, and his most recent work as a delivery driver didn't fit the company's needs, according to a rejection letter he received. He found work in January 1946 when the U.S. Navy hired him as a clerk in the transportation and claims department at the Lido Beach Separation Center and, later, as a laborer in the navy's storehouse, both on Long Island. Although he was desperate for work, Ogawa didn't stay there long. By August, he was once again unemployed.

A Photographer is Born

Ogawa returned to Seattle in late 1947. The following year, the Office of the Master Mechanic at Union Pacific Railroad offered him a job as a boilermaker's helper in Pocatello, Idaho. He spent six months there before returning to Seattle, where he moved into a one-room apartment in the six-story, 255-room Bush Hotel, which was built in 1915 and loomed over the busy intersection of 7th Avenue and Jackson Street.

On July 13, 1948, Ogawa was working at Isaacson Iron Works and changing blades when he sheared off a portion of his left thumb. The injury was severe, and doctors had to perform a partial amputation. The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries paid him $128.25 in workers compensation, but Isaacson Iron Works gave him his walking papers. It was another dead end for Ogawa, now in his mid-40s with a nightmare of a résumé.

Two weeks later, Ogawa was near the Bush Hotel when he heard the sound of screeching tires and the raised voices of people on the street. He grabbed his camera and headed toward the action. Less than a block away, a panicked crowd of people huddled in the warm summer air and stared down at something, someone, in the street. Ogawa clutched his camera and inched his way toward the middle of the crowd. An old man was lying prone in the street, his face splotched with blood, his gray slacks and white button-down shirt torn and dirty. Ogawa leaned into the grim scene and snapped a photograph. The victim, Shikataro Otsuka, was a 68-year-old man who lived a block away on Main Street. He was crossing Jackson Street when he was struck by a hit-and-run driver and thrown more than 20 feet.

It wasn't long before Ogawa was approached by Bud Fukei, editor of the Japanese American newspaper The Northwest Times, asking to run his photograph in an upcoming edition of the newspaper. On August 4, 1948, the dramatic photograph of the bloody Otsuka was printed in the newspaper, above the fold and beneath the headline, "Today's Editorial: This Could Have Been Avoided," with the credit, "Photo by Elmer Ogawa."

Thus was launched Ogawa's career as a freelance photographer.

Man on the Street

Over time, he became Seattle's own version of Arthur "Weegee" Fellig — a photographer who captured the gritty, workaday life of New York City — though he was never nearly as famous. Ogawa seemed to appear on the scene (camera in hand) of nearly every automobile accident in the neighborhood: a man bleeding from his head and lying prone in the street after being struck by a hit-and-run driver; the twisted remains of a light pole after it was mowed down by a bus that skidded along icy Jackson Street during a snowstorm; and fender benders that blocked busy intersections and drew the gawking attention of neighbors and passersby. Ogawa was the man on the street for his time, a neighborhood blogger before blogs.

Ogawa also was given more mundane photo assignments: public figures and minor celebrities (Washington senators Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson and Warren G. Magnuson; Vice President Richard M. Nixon; Seattle mayors Allan Pomeroy and William F. Devin; artists George Tsutakawa and Paul Horiuchi, community events (Seafair parades, the 1962 World's Fair), and the activities of cultural organizations (Japanese American Citizens League, Jackson Street Community Council, American Legion Cathay Post, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Nisei Veterans Committee) — all of which appeared in publications such as Pacific Citizen, SCENE magazine, and The Northwest Times.

"Elmer's name was offered by [Japanese American Citizens League members] in Seattle to cover Japanese American activities in the Pacific Northwest," explained Harry Honda, Pacific Citizen's editor emeritus, in a 2013 interview. According to Honda, Ogawa was one stringer in a long roster that included contributors who covered a wide territory, such as Bill Hosokawa in the Rocky Mountains, Bill Marutani on the East Coast, Larry Nakatsuka and Richard Gima in Hawaii, and Tamotsu Murayama and Shin Sekai in Japan. "I used Elmer's photos automatically when he sent them. The Pacific Citizen in Los Angeles was grateful to use them" (Honda interview with author). 

In addition, Ogawa had a particular interest in Seattle's nightlife, both as a photographer and a reveler. When he wasn't working, he could usually be found in one of Seattle's taverns, bars, or supper clubs, often bellied up to the bar with his bulky, six-pound Crown Graphic 4×5 camera beside him. Barney's Cafe on 7th Avenue, Tim's Tavern on East Pike Street, Bamboo Inn Cafe on Maynard Avenue South, and the Klondyke Cafe on South Washington Street were some of the places Ogawa would frequent to drink beer, trade jokes with friends and bar regulars, and photograph environments that were mostly festive and fun.

Ogawa was an easy figure to spot around town. At 5 feet 8 and weighing nearly 200 pounds, he had a husky physique, jet black hair combed back in a shiny slick, jowls that hung like saddlebags, a cork plug nose, thin mustache, thick eyebrows, and a wide smile. Whereas some photographers were outside observers, Ogawa heartily imbibed and conversed with bartenders and sots, using his effusive charm to draw people into his camera's frame. His subjects seem to be comfortable with being photographed. Ogawa was fond of selfies, appearing in scores of his photographs alongside fellow revelers, smoking cigarettes, chugging frosty pints of beer, trying his luck at a game of dice, and just as happily intoxicated.

Elmer and Pat

Still, Ogawa didn't spend all of his time at blue-collar bars and taverns. One of his most famous series of photographs involves a young, Japanese American singer who created a stir at The Colony, an upscale nightclub, during the 1950s.

In the fall of 1955, 24-year-old Pat Suzuki arrived in Seattle as an understudy for a touring production of Broadway's The Teahouse of the August Moon, which was being staged at The Moore Theatre. Suzuki was a diminutive figure — two inches shy of 5 feet tall, just under 100 pounds, childlike bangs, and a long, black ponytail that draped down her back. Her voice, however, was outsized and impactful.

One afternoon, Suzuki and a friend poked their heads into The Colony, a downtown Seattle nightclub at 4th Avenue and Virginia Street, on the bottom floor of the nine-story Claremont Apartment Hotel. The club wasn't open, and the owner, Norm Bobrow, mistook Suzuki and her pal for teenage trespassers. He nearly kicked them out of the club.

"What do you kids want in here?" Bobrow asked, annoyed. "Just casing the joint," Suzuki replied sassily as her companion scampered out of the club. "And I'm no kid." Suzuki explained that she was with the touring production of Teahouse and looking for a side gig singing in a nightclub. Would Bobrow allow her to audition? Reluctantly, Bobrow agreed. Five minutes later, he was floored by her performance. Suzuki had the gig.

What followed was the rise of the most popular Seattle nightclub singer during the late 1950s. Suzuki moved into a suite in Claremont and turned The Colony into a nightlife destination. Newspapers wrote rave reviews and adoring profiles of her. Legendary sportswriter Red Smith described her as "100 pounds of Nisei dynamite with a voice that could loosen the tiles on Broadway's towers" ("Views Of Sport"). 

Famous musicians, actors, and bandleaders passing through Seattle made a point of stopping at The Colony to see her. Lawrence Welk heard Suzuki perform and phoned her personally to book her on his television show. She flew to Hollywood to appear on a show hosted by Frank Sinatra. Bing Crosby was so awed by her talent when he saw her at The Colony that he put her in touch with RCA Victor and guided her toward a recording contract. In 1959, Crosby, writing the liner notes for Suzuki's album The Many Sides of Pat Suzuki, recalled his visit to The Colony to see Suzuki perform: "Halfway between the chatter and chateaubriand, the lights dimmed in their traditional theatrical fashion, the pianist played an arpeggio and a voice came zooming out of a half-pint gamin like the great locomotive chase. It roared up the trestle splashing its decibels against the walls, and I surrendered. I was surrounded. The voice had its own stereophonic sound."

Evidence of Suzuki's ascension at The Colony exists today thanks to Ogawa. His photographs show the two-story supper club as the nightlife hub that it was: women dressed in sleek and shiny sleeveless gowns, men in tuxedos or fine suits and ties, and rows of tables topped with white linen, sparkling drinking glasses, wine bottles, and glass ashtrays. From the wraparound balcony above, diners leaned over the railing to watch the dancers as Suzuki beguiled her audience with the latest jazz standard.

In the decade or so after Suzuki left Seattle for New York City, she appeared on Broadway as the brassy nightclub singer Linda Low in the Rodgers and Hammerstein original musical Flower Drum Song. She was a guest on television shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, Mike Douglas, and Red Skelton and recorded four albums, one of which earned a Grammy Award nomination. She appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1958.

She also never forgot her old friend, Elmer Ogawa.

"It's been a while, but I can see [Elmer's] face so clearly," said Suzuki, during an interview in 2013. Suzuki recalled many photographers and press people visiting the club, but Ogawa was different. Although he was in his early 50s at the time, some 30 years older than Suzuki, he meshed with a free-spirited band of characters and night owls that included a police detective, a former boxing manager, an advertising executive, and newspaper reporters and columnists. Suzuki fondly recalled joining them on trips to Von's Cafe, a 24-hour diner on 4th Avenue downtown, for drinks, or for late-night, post-show dinners at 3 a.m. in Chinatown.

Ogawa took many photographs of Suzuki at The Colony. In the best photo, it's showtime at The Colony, and Suzuki is alone at center stage. Her hair is pulled back in what television audiences nationwide would later recognize as her trademark long black ponytail, and her arms are outstretched, mid-song, her eyes pointed toward an unseen audience. Off to her right, men gather around tables draped in white cloth. One man in particular sits with his legs crossed, eyes fixed on Suzuki, and smiling wide as she appears to nail a long and high note. He enjoys the show more than anyone else.

"I loved Elmer's droll humor and easy company," Suzuki said. "Elmer was this floating persona that came in and out of my life. I never took anything quite seriously. You don't when you're in your 20s, I think. Elmer was just a good fella. He was easy to be with. He was the nicest of people. He was friendly. He didn't interfere. He didn't project himself that hard" (Suzuki interview with author). 

Death and Legacy

Following a fatal heart attack in 1970, Elmer Ogawa was buried at Resthaven Memorial Cemetery in Seattle. Atop a flat slab of granite, the following is inscribed on a sturdy bronze plate above his grave: † ELMER OGAWA WASHINGTON SGT CO D 58 INFANTRY WORLD WAR II NOV 9 1905 – JULY 1 1970. But Ogawa's legacy was not buried with him. Discovered in his apartment just up the hill from Chinatown was a cache of 14,000 black-and-white negatives and 7,000 black-and-white prints. Herbert Ogawa, Elmer's brother, visited the Special Collections division of the University of Washington libraries to hand them over. Library staff catalogued, inventoried, and weeded through everything. Ogawa's effects remain archived at the UW today. 

In addition to the negatives and prints, the materials include handwritten cards and letters from a range of notables such as immigration attorney Dan. P. Danilov, Seattle's first Asian American city council member Wing Luke, Seattle Mayor Gordon S. Clinton, and U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye. Also in the collection are correspondence from magazine and newspaper editors outlining freelance assignments. Among them were the Nisei square-dancing scene in Seattle; a matsutake mushroom hunt; a profile of Seattle artist George Tsutakawa; a portrait of a veteran who survived the sinking of the battleship Maine during the Spanish-American War and was now living on Yesler Way in Seattle; and Japanese American babies born on New Year's Day. Letters outline payment terms, usually $3 per photo, $10 for cover shots, as well as two to five cents per word if Ogawa wrote the articles. He collected nearly every magazine and newspaper clipping with his byline.

While other photographers — Al Smith and the brothers Edward and Asahel Curtis, for example — made their mark on Pacific Northwest history, Ogawa's legacy has largely escaped widespread public interest and attention. Yet the images Ogawa left behind capture important aspects of Seattle's history and society at the middle of the twentieth century. 


Richard C. Berner, with photographs by Paul Dorpat, Seattle 1900–1920: From Boomtown, Through Urban Turbulence, To Restoration (Seattle: Charles Press, 1991); Images of America: Seattle's Historic Hotels (Charleston, Chicago, Portsmouth, San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2009); Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010); Todd Matthews, Elmer Ogawa: After Hours with Seattle’s Forgotten Photographer, 2015; Robin Shannon, Images of America: Cemeteries of Seattle (Charleston, Chicago, Portsmouth, San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2008); Todd Matthews interview with Pat Suzuki, April 2013, transcript in possession of Todd Matthews; Todd Matthews interview with Goldena Ogawa, November 2012, transcript in possession of Todd Matthews; Todd Matthews interview with Harry K. Honda, June 2013, transcript in possession of Todd Matthews; Elmer Ogawa Papers, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections. 1928–1971; Red Smith, "Views Of Sport: Script For Pete, Floyd Was Written In Shelby," The Seattle Times, August 27, 1957, pg. 28. 

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