A Photographic Legacy: the Career of Japanese American Icon Carl Iwasaki
April 11, 2012 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography
From President Dwight Eisenhower and the Civil Rights Movement to Football Legend Joe Namath, Iwasaki’s photography career tells the story of U.S. history.By Christine McFadden, Pacific Citizen Correspondent
March 2, 2012
Via The Pacific Citizen
Most Americans do not know famed photographer Carl Iwasaki personally, but they are likely familiar with his iconic work that has graced the covers of Time Magazine, Life and Sports Illustrated during his six decades long career.
Iwasaki was there in person to capture the desegregation of schools in the South. It was his vivid photo of Linda Brown and her sister Cheryl walking to school that so aptly covered the story of Brown v. Board of Education during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
He was also lucky enough to photograph President Dwight Eisenhower three times, getting to know the former president on a personal level. He would eventually capture the lives of the likes of Presidents Richard Nixon and Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and he spent over a year following famed football icon Joe Namuth whose image graced the August 2004 Sports Illustrated cover.
“Not many people know about this, but (Eisenhower) loved to paint,” said Iwasaki, 87, who counts the former president as one of his favorite subjects to photograph. “I photographed him painting and he autographed it for me … I got to know him very well.”
“I try to shoot the pictures naturally, without too much posing,” he adds about his famous works.
Although now retired in Denver with three kids, Iwasaki’s work is still shown in galleries and exhibits across the country including the Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Sid Monroe, owner of the Monroe Gallery, marvels at Iwasaki’s ability to tell an individual’s story from one single photograph.
“That’s something that a lot of [Iwasaki’s] photographs do, and especially the [one of the] Brown sisters,” he said.
But Monroe admires Iwasaki not only for his talent, but for how he embarked on his career in photography. It was during his incarceration at Heart Mountain that he began his professional career.
“His background and his entry into photography is really extraordinary,” said Monroe. “I can’t think of any other photographer that has even a remotely similar story.”
Iwasaki was 18 and a senior in high school when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He and his family were eventually sent to Heart Mountain, Wyoming during World War II along with tens of thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated along the West Coast.
One of his first jobs at the camp was as an X-ray technician because of his limited photography background. Eventually he became friends with some of the editors at the camp newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel.
One day some War Relocation Authority photographers were on site to take pictures of some of the scenes and people. Iwasaki struck up a conversation with the photographers when he learned that there was an opening for a darkroom technician at their Denver headquarters.
Iwasaki was soon hired for the position and recalled how difficult it was for him to leave behind his mother and sister who were still incarcerated at Heart Mountain.
“That was the hardest part,” he said. But he was also wary of how Japanese Americans would be treated while the U.S. was still at war with Japan. “It was a little scary because I just didn’t know how the people felt about [us].”
At first, Iwasaki spent most of his time in a photo lab processing film and making prints. In his spare time he photographed some Japanese Americans that had relocated to the Denver area.
Soon his photos got noticed and he was hired to work in the WRA’s Photographic Section, or WRAPS, which documented relocated internees adjusting to life outside the camps.
“I guess they liked what I shot,” said Iwasaki.
“Mr. Iwasaki was the only Japanese American who was hired full-time as an official photographer for the WRAPS,” said UCLA professor Lane Hirabayashi, who featured Iwasaki in his book: “Japanese-American Resettlement Through the Lens: Hikaru Iwasaki and the WRA’s Photographic Section, 1943-1945.”
Several famous photographers worked at the WRA including Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Francis Steward, Tom Parker and Charles Mace. Iwasaki is now the only living photographer from this distinguished group.
Although the only JA to be documenting his community’s struggle for the WRA, Iwasaki says in general he was treated well. Still that didn’t stop his feelings of anxiety at the beginning, especially fearing that some would think he was a spy.
“At that time I was afraid,” said Iwasaki. “Here’s the Japanese person carrying cameras.”
When the war finally ended, Iwasaki was the first WRA photographer to head back to California to document the return of the evacuees.
He recalls that some cities were hostile to the returning Japanese Americans with some towns experiencing shooting incidents. He notes that San Jose was the most welcoming city to the returning evacuees.
“I think the WRA did a fabulous job,” said Iwasaki. “Like I said, there were just a couple of incidents, but as a whole, the evacuees were brought back and were very, very happy to be back.”
It was after working for WRAPS for a few years that Iwasaki would have another chance encounter that would further his career. In Denver he happened to accidentally meet a Time Magazine bureau chief. Since no other photographers were available, he was asked to shoot a political campaign in Wyoming for the notable magazine.
The political campaign was Iwasaki’s big break.
“By luck it ran four pages and a half in Life Magazine,” he said. “It was very exciting.”
Soon he was sitting down with Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon for photo shoots. One of his photography subjects was also Emperor Akihito while he was still a prince and touring North America.
Although now retired and no longer taking photos, Iwasaki’s legacy will continue on in the various works and galleries that continue to show his iconic work and expansive career.
“It’s definitely ironic, given his background,” said Monroe “He was able to succeed not only despite a lack of training and a lack of experience, but also just sort of overcoming that emotional obstacle of being interned.”