CNN Photos

Japanese-American ‘wrote haikus with a camera’

Photographer Yasuhiro Ishimoto passed away last week at age 90. He was born in California in 1921 and lived there for three years before moving with his parents back to their homeland of Japan.

He returned to the States in 1939 due to concerns of being drafted during World War II, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor he was held in an internment camp for two years.

“In the Japanese internment camp, Ishimoto learned to wander and observe in a quiet way,” which contributed to his style of photography, said Atlanta-based art historian Susan Todd-Raque.

After leaving the camp, Ishimoto began studying architecture in Chicago but soon turned to photography, working under renowned photographer Harry Callahan.

The developing photographer became most interested in street photography, according to Colin Westerbeck, a photography curator, previously at the Art Institute of Chicago, who knew Ishimoto.

“Ishimoto was a crucial link to Chicago and the culture of Chicago after [World War II],” Westerbeck said. “He was a photojournalist; not of great news events, but of everyday life.”

Street photographers document their response to one detail of a scene. The contents of the image hit you gradually as you look at it, Westerbeck explained. Ishimoto captured society by seeing the quirks of people’s daily lives.

“You look at it and are slowly drawn into it,” historian Todd-Raque said.

For example, the photograph of an African-American man with his daughter “reflects Yas’ sensitivity to American racism, having been a victim of it himself,” Westerbeck said. He gave the subjects a dignity the culture didn’t provide at the time.

In 1953, Ishimoto returned to Japan, where he was instrumental in modernizing the country’s art style without leaving behind its valued traditions. He captured the Katsura Imperial Villa’s architecture on a commission from New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“He was revered and influential in the way he helped mold Japanese culture with a Western influence,” Westerbeck said.

As seen in his book, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Ishimoto never separated his Japanese and Western influences.

“Even in the early photograph of an American clunker outlined in wind-driven snow on a dingy Chicago street you see the Japanese side of his vision, the way in which he wrote haikus with a camera.”

- Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN