Depth of Field: A Conversation about Photographers from Japan in Canada
Canada's increasing multiculturalist values in the late 1960s and 1970s opened its borders to a second wave of Japanese immigrants. Among them were photographers who became some of the first of Japanese origin to have their work collected by national institutions in Canada. An exhibition like Hanran: 20th-Century Japanese Photography provides an overview of photographic practices in Japan that was not necessarily available to Canadian curators and audiences back then.
Recently, Canadian Photography Institute staff spoke with photography historian Martha Langford, who was beginning her curatorial career at the time. Before becoming a professor at Concordia University in Montreal, Dr. Langford worked for many years in the National Film Board’s (NFB) Still Photography Division, becoming its Executive Producer by 1981. In 1985, she was the founding director of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in Ottawa, remaining its director until 1994.
She is also the author of a chapter in the book Photography and Migration, (Routledge, 2018) on the early reception and interpretation of photographer Kan Azuma’s work. Works by Kan Azuma, Taki Bluesinger, Eikoh Hosoe, Roy Kiyooka, Shun Sasabuchi, Shin Sugino, and Kazumi Tanaka were purchased either by the NFB or the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in the 1970s. In 1985, the NFB photography collection was transferred to the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. CMCP and its collection were then merged with the Gallery’s Photography Department in 2011, later becoming a significant part of the Canadian Photography Institute of the NGC.
CPI Staff: What motivated you to write about Kan Azuma and other Japanese photographers in Canada?
Martha Langford: It comes out of my trajectory in Cold War studies, multiculturalism and political thinking during that period. I started my research on Americans who came to Canada because of the Vietnam War, the institutions they founded in Canada, and their photographic activity. That led me to other photographers. There are very strong holdings in the CPI collection, by photographers of Japanese origin.
Their identity was hyphenated, as “Japanese-Canadian photographers.” That is why inserting them into the history of Japanese photography is important. It makes us think a little bit harder about Occupied Japan, which was not in people’s minds. There was real ignorance. People were thinking about traditional Japan. It did not seem to fit the multiculturalist agenda to think in terms of post-war Occupied Japan, because it was being more and more Americanized.
The stereotyping really goes right down to the roots in interpretations of their works. Maybe we need to think a bit harder about who these people were, and why they came to Canada. Why they were allowed to immigrate to Canada? What was their preparation? Azuma was a trained photographer, so he ticks that box: technical qualifications.
CPI: Were you around when Azuma’s work was acquired by the NFB in the 1970s? Did you know him, Shin Sugino, or Shun Sasabuchi?
ML: Kan Azuma’s Erosion was a travelling exhibition when I joined the NFB. I was not in a position of authority. I was a doer, and one of the jobs I had was writing the description for the travelling exhibition. So in some sense, I am deconstructing my own early curatorial and research activities.
I was given the broad outlines of who Azuma was, along with a basic interpretation of his work. From that, I wrote a travelling exhibition panel, which also became the exhibition’s promotional text. I imagine that I sent it to Azuma to look at, when he was teaching and providing technical assistance at York University. Then he went back to Vancouver, and finally returned to Japan in 1980. Once he was back in Japan, I wrote to him again, because I was organizing an exhibition called Sights of History. Vos photos… Notre histoire.
I didn’t know much at all about Shun Sasabuchi. I knew Shin Sugino, however. He was a friend back then, and I still consider him a friend, even though I haven’t seen him in decades. He was very interested in books at the time, which is important in Japanese photographic practice.
Although they come later, I also have to put in a word for Taki Bluesinger, who was involved with the Western Front, and for Kazumi Tanaka, who was a founding member of Video Inn in Vancouver. They were both part of a project called 13 Cameras/Vancouver, and both have work in the NGC collection.
CPI: Kan Azuma was born in Tokyo in 1946. He studied photography at a design institute in Tokyo in the mid-1960s and worked as a commercial studio assistant before going freelance. What else do you know about his background in Japan and his experience in coming to Canada?
ML: You got it all. I had four or five people who were trying to find him in Japan on my behalf, but nobody did.
Looking at his statement about his work, and what he was thinking about synesthesia, it’s unique. It’s closely related to his friendships, his education, what he was reading, what he was feeling. It’s not just strictly and thinly about being a Japanese Canadian photographer. He was a man. He was a person.
He was certainly very curious about the turbulence of the Youth Movement in the United States — curious enough to pack his bags and go. They didn’t even let him into the country. Next thing, he ends up in Vancouver. So he was definitely a person who was searching, curious, inquiring.
CPI: In reframing Azuma’s work, what did you find?
ML: It led to more questions than answers. I began to wonder where his use of French Symbolist poetry came from. Because it’s obvious that he was interested in poetry and philosophy, what became fascinating to me is that nobody ever asked him, "Why? Why this poet? Why are you reading this poet?" That little bit of evidence pointed me towards a lack of curiosity about the fullness of his cultural background. The nationalist framing is so thin. It doesn’t really get to the kind of background, cultural training and interests these folks had, which were transnational.
Shin was an orphan. He was brought up in a Roman Catholic orphanage and was being not too gently guided towards the priesthood before he left the country. And I remember Taki Bluesinger saying to me, "Did you know what I studied in university before I came to Canada? French symbolist writing." And you think, "What? French symbolist writing? No, no, no. You’re supposed to be a Japanese photographer — Zen, Buddhist."
But some of the missionaries in Occupied Japan were French, and most of the rest were Western. They, too, had interests and educational angles. In other words, it was a very mixed culture. If these photographers had a predilection to come to North America, or to Canada, why? So much of Canada’s multiculturalist rhetoric starts when the person is already here.
CPI: What more can we learn by looking at Azuma's Erosion series and its influences?
ML: He was plainly working out of a phenomenological fascination with elements — a transnationally transferable fascination with earth and water and these markings. But he was drawn to a place [Point Pelee National Park] that he was told was in a very fragile state.
Interest in the state of the earth was imposed upon the Japanese psyche after the two atomic bombs. Is that somehow of interest? Azuma never said so. He’s very circumspect in what he says.
But with so much self-expression in his work, the notion that everything would go back to the catastrophe of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is simplistic. By returning to Azuma’s work, what I wanted to do was implant a sense of self-doubt in observers who would tend to put these artists in boxes reflecting cultural stereotypes. It’s a great deal more complicated than that.
To discover more works by Japanese photographers, visit the exhibition Hanran: 20th-Century Japanese Photography until March 22, 2020. In 2018, Martha Langford received a CPI Research Fellowship to pursue two projects: a comprehensive history of photography in Canada, and a collection of essays on the development of photographic studies in Canada from 1968 to 1983.
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