In 1932, Japanese American photographer Toyo Miyatake (1895-1979) was hired by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun to document the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. The Games were held during the Great Depression and many nations were unable to participate, but Japan sent the second-largest delegation, 131 athletes.
Miyatake caught many of the Japanese athletes’ triumphs, including Chuhei Nambu breaking the world record in the hop, step, and jump (triple jump), 14-year-old Kusuo Kitamura’s gold medal in the men’s 1500-meter freestyle swimming race (and still the youngest male swimmer to win gold at the Olympics), and Takeichi Nishi (“Baron Nishi”), who won Japan’s only gold medal in the equestrian show jumping individual event.
The Japanese team won seven gold medals, seven silver, and four bronze, and the Japanese community in Little Tokyo celebrated with a parade on First Street.
“Torch: 1932 Los Angeles Olympics Photos by Toyo Miyatake,” on display at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center’s Doizaki Gallery starting July 11, is a unique look at this work. Accompanying the photos are translated poems from “Torch” (1933), a collection published in commemoration of the Olympics, written by Issei poets of Los Angeles, Hawaii, and beyond. Also on display will be one of Miyatake’s cameras, his own personal photo album from the Olympics, and Olympics memorabilia from 1932 and 1964.
For Japanese in the U.S., this was a complex time. Olympics nationalism is evident in both the photos and poems, echoing the expansionist militarism of the Japanese Empire. At the same time, years of anti-Asian exclusion and Alien Land Laws would eventually culminate in incarceration camps for Japanese Americans.
Miyatake was born in Kagawa Prefecture. With his mother and brothers, he joined his father in the U.S. in 1909, and settled in Little Tokyo. He studied photography under Harry K. Shigeta and was an active member of the Japanese Camera Club of Little Tokyo. He opened his own photo studio in 1923.
Miyatake was a prolific photographer during the 1930s. Much of his work is in the pictorialist movement style, in which a photographer shapes a photograph according to their imagination through composition and technical means, often with a lack of sharp focus, rather than treating it as a record of reality. He won critical acclaim and prizes, including at the 1926 London International Photography Exhibition.
While forcibly incarcerated at Manzanar during World War II, Miyatake smuggled a camera lens and film plate holder into the camp. A fellow Issei prisoner constructed a camera body from wood, which allowed him to secretly take photos of the camp. Eventually, the camp director allowed him to set up a photo studio on the condition that he only load and set the camera, while a white assistant would have to snap the shutter. Eventually, Miyatake met and began a long collaboration with Ansel Adams, and together they published a book of their work, “Two Views of Manzanar” (1978).
After the war, Miyatake and his family were able to resettle in their home in Los Angeles and reopen the photo studio. In addition to portraiture, he also worked as a photographer for the Mainichi Shimbun and Rafu Shimpo.
Hirokazu Kosaka, JACCC’s master artist in residence and exhibit curator, said, “These photos exemplify Toyo Miyatake’s genius behind the lens. We are thankful to his grandson, Alan Miyatake, for letting us display his work for the community to enjoy.”
The opening reception will be held on Sunday, July 11, from 1 to 4 p.m. JACCC is located at 244 S. San Pedro St. between Second and Third streets in Little Tokyo.
Gallery hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 12 noon to 4 p.m.; closed on Mondays
For more information, call (213) 628-2725 or visit www.jaccc.org.
This exhibit is funded in part by the generosity of the Terasaki Foundation.