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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Toyo Miyatake

Dates:  1895 - 1979
Born:  Japan
Active:  US

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© Gerald Robinson - Used with permission.
Robinson, Gerald H., 2002, Elusive Truth: Four Photographers at Manzanar, (Carl Mautz Publishing) [Paperback] [ISBN: 1887694242]
Toyo Miyatake was born in Japan in 1895 and came to America when he was 14 years old. Originally, he wanted to become a painter, but about 1919 or 1920, he took up photography, and at the suggestion of a friend who recognized his talent, he began to study seriously with Los Angeles photographer Harry Shigeta. After five or six months, Shigeta shut down his classes and moved to Chicago where he became a well-known illustration photographer. Miyatake also studied with Edward Weston during Weston's residence in the Los Angeles area, and soon he had a substantial reputation as an pictorial photographer.[1] He opened a photographic studio in Los Angeles' "Little Tokyo" district and continued his close friendship with Weston.[2]
When Miyatake went to Manzanar in 1942, he smuggled a lens into the camp; cameras were banned for internees and especially enemy aliens. He also constructed a makeshift camera and quietly photographed the camp. He was discovered after nine months and called into Merritt's office.[3] The Director told him that Edward Weston was concerned about him, and had written Merritt concerning him.[4]
Merritt permitted Miyatake to continue to photograph, at first accompanied by a Caucasian WRA employee who released the shutter. The first "helper" incurred Miyatake's wrath when he carelessly ruined an exposed film. He quit and was replaced by a series of wives of Caucasian employees, who went around with him or sat in the studio, and took the camera lens home at night. Later, the "accompanists" were abandoned after several people quit the pointless, boring, job. Miyatake then worked on his own and recorded everyday life at Manzanar. Merritt allowed film to be mailed to Miyatake and permitted his professional equipment to be brought to the camp. A small darkroom and studio was established. All told, Miyatake made about 1500 exposures during his more than three years at the camp from 1942 to late 1945.[5]
The most extensive collection of Miyatake's work is found in "Toyo Miyatake Behind the Camera, 1923-1979".[6] This book includes pre-war and post-war portraiture, sports and dance photographs, and pictures of Miyatake himself after the war, shown as the family patriarch and international luminary. About half of the book is comprised of Manzanar photographs; some duplicate those in the High School Year Book and a few have been published elsewhere.
Miyatake's Manzanar pictures frequently show the surrounding mountains, gray and looming ominously in the background. They are unlike Adams' images in which the Sierras spring forward in pristine clarity, Miyatake's images speak of oppression and not of renewal.
Toyo Miyatake Behind the Camera, 1923-1979, like the Year Book, documents a wide range of camp activities. Most of the pictures are straightforward but a few show unusual scenes: an Army officer swearing in Nisei recruits; a group of American Japanese camp police; allegedly disloyal evacuees leaving for the Tule Lake camp where such people were segregated; a family leaving the camp; Nisei soldiers visiting friends and families; the dismantling of the camp buildings; and a sign on the Relocation Office marking the phasing out of Manzanar, from a cumulative total population of 11,061 to 2,891 on September 30, 1945, and 835 on November 8, 1945, two weeks before it was shut down.
Miyatake's Manzanar Year Book photographs are factual and objective; many seem casual, almost like snapshots. People go about their business, kids walk to school, sing in the choir, play baseball, study theater, woodworking, home economics, science, and farming. Some youngsters smile, but many do not. Classes are shown with their predominately Caucasian teachers.[7] Groups look like they are in typical American schools, but in the background lurks the ugly barracks in which pupils slept and studied. And beyond that, there is a persistent bleak landscape, most unlike the grandeur Adams presented.
One picture shows three boys peering through a barbed wire fence. A guard tower with a searchlight on top shows in the upper right hand corner. Miyatake's son Archie thinks that the boys were inside looking out. The image is particularly touching because it violated the rule that camp guard towers and fences were never to be photographed. At the end of the 1943-1944 High School Yearbook is there a picture of a guard tower, and two pages later, a hand with a wire cutter about to snip a strand of barbed wire, with a guard tower looming in the background. By 1944, it was too late and pointless to enforce the rule against such photographs; people had left Manzanar in large numbers; the nature of the "internment" was then generally known. Censorship, if it ever had a reason, was by then an anomaly.
When he was released from camp a few weeks before it closed in November 1945, Miyatake returned to Los Angeles and reopened his studio. Archie had learned to photograph and retouch negatives at Manzanar and joined his father in the business. Toyo became a celebrity in both Los Angeles and in Japan. In 1993 the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency commissioned Nobuho Nagasawa to sculpt an oversize bronze of his handmade camp camera. It is permanently displayed in Little Tokyo near the Japanese American National Museum.
  1. It is not clear exactly when Miyatake and Weston first met. Weston, it will be recalled, lived in the Los Angeles area from 1909 to 1923, and after his return from Mexico, from 1926 to 1929. Ten of Miyatake's prints were included in the show "California Pictorialism." The catalog was published by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1977. The photographs were made between 1923 and 1937.
  2. Much valuable information about Miyatake's pre-war life and his activities at Manzanar was graciously provided by his son, Archie, during a telephone interview on December 29, 1998.
  3. Toyo Miyatake is, unfortunately, little known outside of photography circles. Many of his photographs have been reproduced without attribution. In addition to the republished Manzanar High School Year Book (infra. n.54), his pictures appear in Two Views of Manzanar, 1978, a catalog of a show of his work and that of Ansel Adams at the Wight Gallery at UCLA, infra, n.52. See also Toyo Miyatake Behind the Camera 1923-1979, ed. By Atsufumi Miyatake, Taisuke Fujishima, and Eiko Hosoe, Tokyo, Bungeishunju, 1984. (This book's text is written in Japanese.) Four photographs also appear in Patrick Nagatani, "Virtual Pilgrimage", essay by Jasmine Alinder, Albuquerque Museum, 1998.
  4. G. Howe, P. Nagatani, S. Rankin, Two Views of Manzanar, Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, UCLA, 1978, p. 10. Toyo Miyatake: Documenting Japanese Internment, Knowledge Adventure, 1998, http//; Hosoe section "Toyo and Edward" in Toyo Miyatake Behind the Camera 1923-1979, supra, n.51, pages 144-145.
  5. Some of Miyatake's work at Manzanar has recently been re-published in Our World - 1943-44, the Manzanar High School yearbook through the efforts of Diane Yotsuya Honda. This edition also contains interesting biographical information about Miyatake. The last page shows a hand holding a wire cutter poised to clip a strand of barbed wire. Houston, supra, n.5, writes that this image was taken for and published in the following year's year book. Miyatake's son Archie was a member of the Manzanar High class of 1944. He has retired from the Toyo Miyatake Studio in San Gabriel, California. He was given a grant by the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund to restore his father's Manzanar negatives and scan them onto the World Wide Web. The scans are now at the Japanese American National Museum and should become available on the Web.
  6. supra, n. 51.
  7. One photograph in the "Year Book" shows Ansel Adams, (unidentified, but sans his trademark beard) photographing a drama class.

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