An artwork can have many lives. It might be publicly admired for centuries, or cloistered in a private room, or just stranded in a dusty closet. Or, as is the case with the Getty Museum’s recent acquisition of 79 Japanese American photographs, it could be stored for years in a black plastic trash bag in the garage of a plant nursery in Culver City, until the right person comes along to find it.
The right person, in this case, was Dennis Reed. An artist, professor, and collector, it was Reed who eagerly drove to that plant nursery one cool December morning in 1981 to meet the niece and heir of photographer Shinshaku Izumi. On the day Reed visited to ask about her uncle’s photographs, she brought out a pile of trash bags in a wheelbarrow. Reed recalls, “I reached in and pulled out one fantastic photograph after another. It was so exciting.”
Before World War II, Izumi had been part of the Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California (JCPC), a photography club in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood. The members were a mix of amateurs, hobbyists, and professional photographers who shared darkrooms, gathered for formal critiques, and mounted small exhibitions. At the time, such clubs were vital centers for mentorship and study, as very few schools offered art-photography curricula.
The standards upheld at JCPC were rigorous, and members’ work was frequently included in selective photography catalogs and international yearbooks. Despite a climate of prejudice that kept Japanese American photographers out of many local museum and gallery exhibitions, their artistic reputation became known around the world. Salon exhibitions in Paris (1929) and London (1933), among others, featured an outsized number of prints by West Coast Japanese American photographers, and admirers included such artists as Helen Levitt, Margarethe Mather, László Moholy-Nagy, and Edward Weston.
The escalating war brought this vital community to an abrupt end. In December 1941, as part of the Enemy Alien Act, cameras were declared contraband in the hands of Japanese Americans, and house raids followed. A few months later, over 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and businesses behind, boarding buses that would take them to temporary housing before they were sent to internment camps. In the scramble to pack their entire lives into a single suitcase, many photographers hid, sold, or destroyed their cameras and artwork.
Reed first learned about this lost history after seeing a photograph in the drawer of a Los Angeles gallery. He recalls picking up a “really gorgeous” Modernist image from the 1920s of puddles on the ground. He turned it over, expecting to see a familiar name on the back. Instead, it was signed by Shigemi Uyeda, whom Reed had never heard of. The gallerist explained that there was a group of Japanese photographers who worked in LA before the war. Reed, a lifelong fan of Japanese aesthetics and design, was immediately intrigued.
When Jim Ganz, senior curator of photographs at the Getty Museum, first visited Reed and saw another print of Uyeda’s—Reflections on the Oil Ditch—he too was captivated by the work. “I find it truly mindboggling that photographs of this quality and originality were not merely forgotten, but in many cases, actively hidden away. Uyeda’s photographic oeuvre was saved during the war by being concealed in a false ceiling of his home.”
Reed began researching West Coast Japanese American photography clubs and trying to track down their members’ work. He culled a list of 186 names from photography catalogs in archives of the University of California, Los Angeles, then set about cold-calling them from the phone book, with the help of his students at Los Angeles Valley College. The vast majority of calls were dead ends. But one day a student ran down the hallway after contacting an old friend of Izumi’s, shouting, “I found one! I found one!” Slowly, by tracking down friends and relatives of the artists over the course of the next 35 years, Reed eventually assembled a collection of 79 photographs made between 1919 and 1940, which the Getty Museum acquired in 2019. Art critic Christopher Knight deemed Reed’s dogged pursuit of this lost history “archeological.” Recalling his days of hunting down the prints, Reed says, “I felt like Indiana Jones.”
“We are thrilled to have acquired this important collection,” says Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum. “The photographs record a critical diversification in the character and subject matter of the medium in America that has not yet been fully appreciated or celebrated. The backstory of their creation, dispersal, and rediscovery is a significant, if lesser-known, part of 20th-century American art history. We’re proud to add them to our growing collection of photography by Asian artists and to preserve this work for future generations.”
Reed’s collection has been exhibited a few times over the past decades, both in Southern California and at venues like the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Virginia Heckert, curator of photographs at the Getty Museum (and at the time acting head of the department), saw portions of the collection at Reed’s home in 2013, then again in the 2016 exhibition Making Waves: Japanese American Photography 1920–1940 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. She notes, “Some of the images seem very Pictorialist, but with a specifically Japanese sensibility—a high horizon line, vertical format, shadows. Others depict common Japanese subjects, like ceramics and flowers. Some seem soft and picturesque, but others have harder lines and darker tones that give them a more Modernist feel.”
In the 1920s and ’30s, photographic style was transitioning from the soft-focus, atmospheric aesthetic of Pictorialism—a term used to separate interpretive art photography from straightforward documentation—toward the more geometric, sharper forms of Modernism. “Reed’s collection shows that transition in intriguing ways,” says Heckert.
For Reed, the decision to part with his collection wasn’t easy. Reflecting on his years of uncovering this work, he laughs, “We didn’t replace the horrible linoleum in the kitchen because I was spending my money on these photographs! But I wanted to be sure that this material was placed where it would be valued and cared for, and the Getty Museum had the right combo of expertise, facilities, and personnel.” He looks forward to other scholars and curators engaging with this collection, making new discoveries, and placing it into new contexts.
The Reed collection will be made available to researchers in the Department of Photography’s Study Room by appointment and will be exhibited at the Getty Museum in the future.