The Seattle Camera Club, a group of photography enthusiasts, was formed in 1924 and disbanded in 1929. Composed mostly of Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrant) men, the club also welcomed men of other races and even women. Although it lasted a scant five years, the SCC left a legacy of works in Pictorial photography, a movement that sought to create fine art with the camera. While much of the work of these artists has been lost, several sets of images have been preserved in public and private collections. A revival of interest in the camera club and in Pictorialism in recent decades has been reflected in a number of exhibits and publications.
A Unique Venture
"The purpose and object of this organization shall be to promote, foster, and advance by every honorable means, Photographic Art" ("Rules of the Seattle Camera Club").
For a few brief years in the 1920s, Seattle was the hub of a unique venture in the arts: a camera club founded by Japanese immigrant men but open to all comers, including women.
The concept of the camera club was not new. Many cities across this country and elsewhere boasted such groups of amateur photographers at a time when the handheld personal camera was coming into its own. On the West Coast, a number of camera clubs were founded by first-generation Japanese immigrants (Issei), including in Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
While much of the output of these groups has been lost to time, the Seattle Camera Club left a trove of information in the form of photographs and documents donated to the University of Washington and the Seattle Public Library. As a result, we know quite a bit about the club members -- their activities, aspirations, and successes.
Members of the Seattle Camera Club followed what is known as "Pictorialism" in their photography, creating black-and-white images aspiring to fine art rather than just documentation of subject matter. Imaginative, often filmy, images of nature, landscape, and the human form made up much of their work. Pictorialists were influenced by the painting movements of the nineteenth century, including Impressionism, Romanticism, and the Pre-Raphaelites. Indeed, many pictorial images look like paintings. Many Japanese American photographers, and others, also found inspiration in the Asian traditions of sumi-e painting with black ink and woodblock prints.
Pictorial photographers saw their work as bringing beauty to the world. Soft focus was favored over sharpness. Image accuracy was abandoned in favor of creating works of artistic merit, even if this meant manipulating the picture with innovative printing techniques. They were the photoshoppers of their day.
Within these generalities, the pictorialists offered up a wide range of styles and subject matter, from still-lifes and dreamy nature scenes to erotic imagery.
Dennis Reed, a Los Angeles-based art curator specializing in Japanese American art photography, has this to say about the Seattle club: "No group of Japanese in America fit as comfortably within the pictorial tradition as did those in Seattle. They gained a wide reputation in pictorial circles, both through the photographs they created and through their having established an international salon" (Reed, 21).
The Seattle Camera Club began with a group of a few camera hobbyists meeting at the local drugstore where they had their photos printed. From there, a fellowship was born, and then a camera club. Dues were 50 cents per month.
The SCC was extremely active for the five years of its existence, 1924 to 1929. Members met monthly for an exchange of ideas, to offer their images for critique, and often to hear guest speakers. The club sponsored field trips to picturesque locales, such as Mount Rainier. It produced a monthly bulletin, Notan, and an annual "salon" -- a public showing of exceptional photography. And its members exhibited their work locally, nationally, and internationally.
Geographically, the club activities were centered in and around a tight block or two of Main Street in Nihonmachi (Japantown) in Seattle's International District neighborhood. Here could be found the medical offices of Dr. Kyo Koike (1878-1947), the leader and chairman, in the Empire Hotel (422 1/2 Main Street); Gyokkoken Cafe (508-510 Main Street), where the club held meetings; and the Main Drug Store (514 Main Street), where many members had their photos developed and printed and some found employment. The group also maintained a reading room at the Empire Hotel for at least part of its existence, a place for members and guests to come and peruse camera-related literature and exhibition catalogs. (Note that the Empire Hotel was one of many establishments in the neighborhood that was likely more a boarding house than a grand hotel.)
A question that cannot be answered is: Did the center of club activities "below the line" of Yesler Way (south of the downtown business district and adjoining neighborhoods) contribute to its failure to attract more members from Seattle's white population despite the hopes of its leadership for greater diversity in its membership?
Another, much-debated, question is to what extent were the adherents of the SCC influenced by their Asian roots. Was the work they produced substantively different from that created by white pictorialists? Some critics at the time went so far as to say that Japanese photographers were a group apart and should not be included in the American exhibitions of the day. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Koike took exception to this view, writing in Notan that the Japanese were just as American as any immigrant, even if they were forbidden by law to become citizens. Others seemed to admire the work of the Japanese American photographers as long as it was sufficiently "Japanese." This attitude may explain why up and down the West Coast there continued to be Japanese camera clubs and white camera clubs, with little intermingling through the era.
An early pamphlet that includes the rules of the Seattle Camera Club lists 31 charter members, all Japanese American men. In the following years, names appeared and disappeared on the roster. A handful were white, and at least three were women (two white and one Japanese). Brought together by their mutual interest in Pictorialism, these men and women went on to follow different paths in their lives and careers. Some members found fame, others at least short-lived recognition, while many are relegated to obscurity.
A number of members stand out, due either to their name recognition at the time, the endurance of their art, or both. Kyo Koike was indisputably the club leader, spearheading the formation of the group; editing the club's publication, Notan; and advancing the cause of Pictorialism in photographic journals around the world. His work was among the most-published-and-exhibited of all the members. Koike arrived in Seattle from Japan in 1916 and established a medical practice in Nihonmachi. In his spare time he picked up photography, a hobby he had once practiced in Japan. As time went on, the pursuit consumed more and more of his time and energy. Like a number of other photographers he was a mountaineer, climbing the slopes of Mount Rainier dozens of times and, of course, photographing it. He had the soul of a poet; in addition to the camera club, Koike co-founded the Rainier Ginsha, a haiku society, which still meets. Following internment at Minidoka during World War II (where he organized another haiku club), Koike returned to Seattle, but died shortly thereafter while picking ferns. His ashes were strewn near Mount Rainier, the peak he called "the holy mountain."
Ella McBride (1862-1965), a white woman, joined the club in 1925. She had been the studio manager for famed photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952) and now had a studio of her own. As an established professional in the field, she served as a mentor to some of the young Japanese American men. Her images of flowers and human figures won her renown.
Frank A. Kunishige (1878-1960) immigrated to the United States in 1895. He arrived in Seattle in 1917 where he became acquainted with Ella McBride and Edward Curtis. Unlike most of the club members, he often printed his own photographs, even inventing a special translucent paper he called Textura Tissue. He specialized in urban scenes and human figures, many of them nudes and unabashedly erotic. Thanks to his widow, Gin, and his friend, Iwao Matsushita, many of his images wound up in the collection of the University of Washington.
Iwao Matsushita (1892-1979) was a close friend of Kyo Koike. He and his first wife had no children, but doted on their cats, who often served as Matsushita's models. The wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans was particularly hard on the Matsushitas, a close couple. Iwao was picked up by authorities on the very day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, as a person of suspicion. He was sent to Fort Missoula in Montana where the government incarcerated those men who had been on their watch list. His wife, Hanaye (d. 1965), was sent to Minidoka the following spring; the couple was separated for more than two years. After the war Matsushita was able to find work teaching Japanese at the University of Washington and donated many Japanese books to the school's Far East Library. At the UW, he became acquainted with Special Collections librarian Robert Monroe, leading to his decision to donate the papers and photos of Dr. Koike in his care, as well as those of Kunishige, whose widow he had married in 1967.
Soichi Sunami (1885-1971) was one of several SCC members who left the Seattle area but continued their relationship with the club. After living in the Pacific Northwest for a number of years, Sunami moved to New York City where he had the opportunity to photograph famed dancer Martha Graham. In 1930 he began a long association as a photographer for the Museum of Modern Art. Although he was not subject to incarceration during the war, he destroyed his nude images for fear of retaliation.
Virna Haffer (1899-1974) was a white woman who earned a reputation as a highly innovative and provocative photographer with her strange, sometimes grotesque imagery. Kusutora Matsuki (1879-?) liked to photograph urban scenes. Hiromu Kira (1898-1991) was a founding member of the SCC, but moved to Los Angeles in 1926 where he specialized in still-life photography. Hideo Onishi (1890-?) had a one-person show at the Japanese Commercial Club in 1926 in Seattle, reportedly attended by more than 1,000. He, along with several other members, eventually returned to Japan.
Light and Shade
The Seattle Camera Club left a detailed record of its activities and accomplishments in the printed monthly bulletin titled Notan. The Japanese word is often translated as "light and shade." Even beginning graphic-arts students will recognize "notan" as a basic principle involving the placement of light and dark elements in a composition. There were 65 issues of the club's bulletin; the first eight, titled Shumi no Tomo ("friends through hobby"), are lost, but copies of the remaining 57 issues titled Notan were preserved and deeded to the University of Washington by the Matsushitas.
Notan contains a remarkable amount of information about the camera club: lists of members, awards, and activities; notes on field trips; reports on the monthly meetings; and tallies of awards given and photos accepted for showing by various salons and exhibitions. It also reproduces correspondence from other clubs and critics, translations of Japanese short stories courtesy of Dr. Koike, and essays by the doctor and others. There are grainy reproductions of photographs by club members and advertisements for photography-related businesses. Much of the text appears in Japanese, but quite a bit is in English. A subscription to Notan cost $1 per year.
From Notan we can learn much about the monthly meetings held at a local cafe:
"March 12th  we held our seventeenth monthly meeting at the Gyokkoken Cafe. About thirty members were present and Mr. Gaspard Puccio, an artist, was the guest. The members brought forty-seven prints for review. When spring began to smile, they could not stay home, but were obliged to take their cameras out from the closets, I suppose" (Notan, No. 23).
The club often hosted guest speakers, including a not-quite-yet-famous Glenn Hughes, who was involved in theater at the University of Washington, and the painter Mark Tobey, newly arrived in Seattle. Hughes was a friend of the group and lent a hand editing several of the later editions of Notan. Tobey taught painting at the Cornish School for Drama, Music, Dance (later Cornish College of the Arts). Several members of the club were also involved with Cornish: Ella McBride, Frank Kunishige, and others were hired to photograph the resident actors and dancers, as well as guest artists such as ballerina Anna Pavlova.
Koike, who supplied most of the English-language content in Notan, wrote an article titled "Introducing the City of Seattle," in which he plays tour guide to the reader, offering both tips on photogenic locales in the city and a thumbnail catalog of the achievements of the club members, naming award-winning images:
"On a summer day I found my 'Little Adventures' on Lake Washington near Madrona Park, for which Photo-Era Magazine awarded me an honorable mention. The bridge through Frink Park was an ideal background for our pictorial works. Mr. H. Onishi made his 'Elegy,' which was awarded fifth prize from Frederick & Nelson Salon and was accepted by Toronto Salon, while I made my 'Spring Song' for New Westminster Salon, Canada. ... Mr. F. A. Kunishige found his three masterpieces there, 'Broken Bowl,' 'Sun Bath,' and 'The Gate of Paradise.' They were worth enough to make for him a name both locally and abroad. The boulevard between Mt. Baker Park and Seward Park gave me four pictures: 'Birch Trees' and 'Stroll' were awarded honorable mentions from Photo-Era Magazine; 'Fishing' was accepted by Los Angeles Salon and the last one was 'Whispering,' which was printed in American Annual of Photography and Camera Craft" (Notan, No. 16).
By name-checking various publications and salons where the work of the club had been featured, Koike claimed national and even international stature for the group.
The "salon" was the event of choice for exhibitions of living artists -- painters and photographers -- especially for those who, because of their amateur standing or because of racial discrimination, were not offered showings at high-end galleries. The salon offered a chance to have one's work viewed by the public and judged by a small group of experts, voting individually. Generally salons printed a catalog of the pieces accepted for exhibition. In 1920 the Seattle department store Frederick & Nelson put on a salon, the first of six annual shows. While only one or two club members were selected for the first salon, as time went on more of the names that would come to be associated with the Seattle Camera Club appeared at the Frederick & Nelson salons and other.
In April 1925, the relatively new Seattle Camera Club held a salon of its own -- The Seattle Exhibition of Pictorial Photography Held under the Auspices of Seattle Camera Club -- at the Japanese Academy of Music (216 Maynard Avenue). Three-quarters of the photographers chosen were Japanese; the rest were white. A year later, the SCC salon attracted artists from around the country and the world. Eight women, including Ella McBride, were featured in that 1926 salon, including one Japanese American woman, identified as Miss Y. Inagi of Seattle. Bolstered by this success, the club changed the name of its third salon by substituting the word "International" for "Seattle." The event was held at both the Chamber of Commerce and the Bush Hotel (621 Jackson Street). The fourth salon was held at Frederick & Nelson; the group had finally broken out of the confines of the Japantown neighborhood. The fifth and final SCC salon was held at the Art Institute of Seattle on First Hill. In the preface to the catalog of the fifth exhibition, Koike enumerated 29 countries from Europe and Asia that were represented, along with the United States and the territory of Hawaii.
Koike was especially proud when the club (as well as he, individually) was awarded affiliation with the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, about 1927, and added this distinction to the fifth salon catalog and to the Notan masthead. An interesting technical side note is the number of "processes" listed in the catalog. Each entry is coded according to the print method used, from B (Bromide) to Re (Resinotipia). Sixteen separate processes are listed in the final catalog.
Although most club members were amateur photographers (that is, not paid professionals), they were not shy about offering their work for exhibition and trying for prizes in the many photographic competitions of the day across the country and around the world. Club leaders kept detailed records of the numbers of prints accepted for showing, awards given, etc. These numbers were often reported in Notan. Nine members exhibited at the 1927 First International Photographic Salon in Tokyo, Japan, homeland to most SCC members.
On October 11, 1929, the Camera Club officially disbanded, a short five years after its formation. Its downfall came during the very early days of the economic downturn that would become the Great Depression, and less than three weeks before the October 29 stock-market crash known as Black Tuesday. Financial insecurity may have been a factor in the decision to shutter the club; most members worked at low-paying jobs. Very few made a living as photographers and that a meager one at best. Photography was an expensive hobby, even with the simple cameras favored by members.
Another problem was that the club never truly expanded to include more than a handful of non-Japanese members. In the final issue of Notan, Koike referenced dwindling attendance at meetings; his sorrow at the loss is apparent.
"We decided to disband our Seattle Camera Club because of non-activities and financial difficulties of most of the members. Our organization was in flower at one time, but its autumn has come and it is withered now" (Notan, No. 65).
A factor in the club's demise was likely declining interest in Pictorialism, or any type of art photography, in favor of the modernist school that espoused realism. Pictorialism did not die in 1929, but took a back seat to the journalistic style that thrived under the need to document the harsh conditions of the Great Depression and World War II.
A near-fatal blow to the dreamy work of the Japanese-born artists came in 1942 with Executive Order 9066 and the expulsion of all ethnic Japanese from the West Coast to concentration camps in the country's interior. Even before the internment trains started rolling, Japanese Americans were required to turn in all cameras on the dubious premise that the equipment might be used to spy for the enemy. Most of the camera club alumni complied with the order, some going so far as to destroy darkroom equipment, prints, and negatives for fear of arousing suspicion. A great deal of art was lost in this way, alongside the homes, businesses, and reputations of the photographers and their families.
The work of the Seattle Camera Club was largely forgotten until late in the century. As noted above, after the deaths of Koike and Kunishige, a number of their photographs and papers came into the care of the University of Washington's Special Collections department. Thanks to the archivists who recognized the significance of their work, notably Special Collections chief Robert Monroe, a new wave of interest in the club and Northwest Pictorialism was born, resulting in museum exhibits and publications.
In 1995, the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle mounted an exhibit titled They Painted from Their Hearts: Pioneer Asian American Artists, which included some pictorialist photos. The Seattle Art Museum focused on the Seattle Camera Club in 1999 with the exhibit Painted With Light: Photographs by the Seattle Camera Club. The Wing Luke Museum followed up in 2001 with Through Our Eyes: 20th Century Asian American Photography of the Pacific Northwest. A decade later, in 2011, the Henry Art Gallery, on the grounds of the University of Washington, produced Shadows of a Fleeting World: Pictorial Photography and the Seattle Camera Club. A comprehensive book of the same title, by UW archivist Nicolette Bromberg and art historian David F. Martin, was published in conjunction with the exhibit. In 2015 the Seattle Public Library hosted a special exhibit of the works of Frank A. Kunishige in its collection.
Images by Seattle Camera Club members were also included in exhibits in California, notably two shows, in 1986 and in 2016, at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.