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Despite mysteries of author's life, 'Picture Man' illuminates Yakutat

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 21, 2015

Picture Man: The Legacy of Southeast Alaska photographer Shoki Kayamori

By Margaret Thomas; Snowy Owl Books/University of Alaska Press; 2015; 152 pages; $26.95

Newcomers to America have always faced challenges adjusting to a new country and its ways, but at certain times some have been singled out and demonized upon arrival simply for their ethnicity or country of origin. Germans, Italians, Jews, Chinese, and more recently Latin Americans and Middle Easterners have landed on these shores seeking a better future only to be subjected to treatment sometimes far worse than what they endured in their homelands.

The story of one such individual lies at the heart of "Picture Man," a masterfully written and tragically sad account by journalist and former Alaskan Margaret Thomas. The book follows Shoki Kayamori, a Japanese immigrant who came to Yakutat in 1912. He was an untrained but remarkably skilled photographer who documented daily life in that Tlingit village for three decades, leaving a visual record now divided mostly between two collections, one held at the Alaska State Library and the other by the Sealaska Corporation.

Thomas first learned of the photos in the mid-1990s as a reporter in Juneau assigned to write about them. The story of the man behind them intrigued her and over the next two decades she spent considerable time seeking to learn more about him. It had to have been a frustrating experience. Kayamori left little information about himself. He never married and had no descendants. His personal motivations for coming to America, why he stayed in Alaska, and what drew him to photography all remain open questions.

Economical wordsmith

With so little to go on, Thomas couches Kayamori's story in the bigger history of early 20th century Japanese immigrants to America, the hardships and discrimination they faced, and the tangled and distrusting relationship between the two countries that would lead to war four decades later.

Thomas, a thoughtful and economical wordsmith, begins her book with a history of Japan in the late 19th century, a time when it emerged almost overnight from a medieval society into a rapidly modernizing industrial power. For the Japanese, it was a period of social upheaval and growing militarism.

What prompted Kayamori to leave Japan for America is unknown, but records show he arrived in Seattle in 1903, departing for San Francisco soon afterward. Following the earthquake that devastated that city in 1906, he returned to Seattle for a few more years.

Thomas uses Kayamori's time on the West Coast to explore the lives of Japanese immigrants in the first decade of the new century. They were widely despised. Since nearly all were men, newspapers depicted them as lustful and threatening toward white women. Laws barred them from marrying outside their race and they were routinely denied citizenship. Job opportunities were limited and miserable, living arrangements generally squalid. Popular opinion among Americans was that the Japanese were to blame for their conditions and should be sent home. Then as now, however, Americans depended on impoverished immigrants for cheap labor.

This was also the time when salmon canneries were booming in Southeast Alaska and many Japanese immigrants were drawn north to work in them. Here as elsewhere, they were exploited by indifferent employers.

Many mysteries

Kayamori came to Yakutat in 1912 to work in a cannery, and for reasons only he knew, chose to stay. He appears to have settled comfortably into the town, adopting its hunting and fishing lifestyle and earning the trust of fellow residents. He was reportedly well liked by both white and Tlingit members of the community, a fact illustrated by the ease they show in the many photographs he took of them.

As with so many other aspects of his life, exactly when and why Kayamori took up photography is a mystery, but he definitely had a camera soon after his arrival in Yakutat. Many of his pictures are displayed in this book. Despite being in all likelihood self-trained, he had a natural sense of composition and photographed his neighbors freely, leaving a rich collection of images of life in that time.

Thomas writes, "The resident photographer became the keeper of the community's past. Grinning young women in 1920s fashions and bobbed hair flirted with the camera. Members of the new Alaska Native Brotherhood assembled in solemn rows for portraits in the brotherhood's hall, still the polished center of community life today with its exposed, hand-hewn timber beams. At city hall, a set of Kayamori prints is stored in well-thumbed three-ring binders. Elders have penciled in recollections on sheets of white paper opposite the prints in the binders. A pretty Native teen in braids poses in a white-ermine dress trimmed with dark felt and floral beadwork. Beside the picture, Yakutat resident Raymond Sensemier wrote, 'Maggie drowned in a lake next to current post office.'"

Despite having proven to be a great gift to Yakutat and Alaska, Kayamori's photography would be his undoing. As tensions mounted between the U.S. and Japan, his extensive documentation of the landscape drew the attention of the FBI and he was put on a watch list. He could not escape being a distrusted outsider. Upon learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kayamori took his own life.

Working with limited information on Kayamori himself, Thomas brings as much of his life as she can to the fore. She wisely minimizes her speculations on what can't be known and focuses instead on the social forces that unquestionably guided his trajectory. It's a sensitive and compassionate portrayal of the struggles immigrants still encounter in America, especially when they come from nations in conflict with our own. It's a mirror to our own time and a reminder that even as we sometimes condemn them, immigrants can often be clear-eyed observers of who we are.

David A. James is a Fairbanks based freelance writer and critic.

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