In 2008, Japanese photographer Hitoshi Ohuchi made a remarkable discovery: the largest known photographic archive of Hiroshima before the United States detonated an atomic bomb over the city. This decades-old collection came from Hiroshima Studio, run by Wakaji Matsumoto, Ohuchi’s grandfather. It had been operating just two and a half blocks from what would become ground zero.
Wakaji Matsumoto—An Artist in Two Worlds: Los Angeles and Hiroshima, 1917–1944 opened this past September at the Japanese American National Museum and is an ongoing online exhibition of this important body of work. It includes short video documentaries and online photo galleries broken up into three sections: biographical, Los Angeles, and Hiroshima.
In 1906, at the age of 17, Matsumoto moved to Los Angeles to work as a farmer. He then studied photography through a correspondence course and a school in San Diego, where he developed a particular talent for panoramas. He worked under portrait photographer and documentarian Tōyō Miyatake, who would become famous for his documentation of Japanese American internment during World War II.
So much of Matsumoto’s imagery captures ways of life that would be upended amid the war — on the US side, the farm life of Japanese Americans in California (home to the largest Japanese-American population in North America) before internment, and on the Japanese side, portraits and daily affairs of the people in Hiroshima before the bomb.
In rich panoramas of 1920s Los Angeles, we see views of the farms, markets, and schools in dramatic sweeps that convey a sense of the land before car culture took over. In standard-size photos, a Salvation Army band marches in a parade along East First Street, one of the main drags of Little Tokyo, and Japanese children process in Shinto regalia at the Nishi Hongwanji Temple, still an important Buddhist temple in the city.
Panoramas of Hiroshima show a long funeral procession, a torii gate, and cavalry; Matsumoto zooms out to give us a view of central Hiroshima in the 1930s. Portraits of Hiroshima citizens — children, farmers, young men and women — winter landscapes, the post office, and rail yard all offer a peek into life just before the war. His standard-size photos show parasols, his photo lab, and the rice paddies. While some are documentary, many are more expressive and artistic, playing with light, shadow, and shapes.
The exhibition’s juxtaposition of the two cities provides a glimpse of a world in the midst of transition into the next stage of global capitalism and Westernization. Horses and carts exist alongside Ford Model As, and in both cities, people wear a mix of Japanese kimono and hakama and Western suits and dresses. In one charming Los Angeles photo, Matsumoto joined his family and neighbors for a shot, holding a shutter release clearly in view. It is, arguably, an early example of a group selfie, complete with a furry black and white dog.
The show is accompanied by educational materials and two essays, including a history and reflection from Karen Matsumoto, Wakaji Matsumoto’s granddaughter. By the time US President Truman gave the order to drop the bomb, the photographer and his wife lived 10 miles away from ground zero, and he had ceased his photography due to lack of supplies.
We’ll never have a photo of exactly what they saw, but Karen Matsumoto described it thus: “My grandmother was hanging up her laundry to dry outside when the atomic bomb was dropped. She said it glittered up in the sky and started to spread toward them. Could that be a shock wave, the impact of explosion, or a hitodama (a fireball from Japanese folklore)?”
Wakaji Matsumoto died in 1965, after having worked in coal mines that weakened his health, and it would be another 42 years till his work was rediscovered. Today, some of his photos are featured prominently in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. And now they’re online for everyone to enjoy, appreciate, and study.
Wakaji Matsumoto—An Artist in Two Worlds: Los Angeles and Hiroshima, 1917–1944 is an ongoing online exhibition organized by the Japanese American National Museum curated by Dennis Reed.