Long before technology like Facebook and Photoshop existed, a group of Japanese immigrants looking to share their passion for photography with each other merged to form the Seattle Camera Club.
More than 100 of their photographs and work are now on display at the Henry Art Gallery through May 8. The exhibition, titled “Shadows of a Fleeting World,” is free for UW students.
“This was a group of artists who had very difficult ways of communicating with people across the world,” art historian David Martin said. “Today, you could post something online that would go around the world in seconds. But back then, they had to mail things and build relationships with people outside of the area.”
While the 37 photographers who formed the group in 1924 lived in a time of racial tension, they became known as artists for portraying their subjects in the romanticized style of Pictorialism, an artistic form of photography that became popular in the early 20th century.
“The whole idea was to make photographs look like real art,” Martin said. “Some of them look like drawings or etchings. They were kind of pushing the limits of different processes that were available to photographers at the time. They were very experimental.”
Because the club disbanded by World War II due to the Great Depression and the internment of a number of its members, much of its work was destroyed or lost.
Yet through collaboration between the Henry, the UW Press and the UW Libraries, individuals like Martin and visual curator Nicolette Bromberg worked tirelessly for decades to acquire photographs through library reserves, descendants of the Camera Club members, and general enthusiast collectors.
“Eventually discovering their work and finding things that reinforced how Seattle had a much bigger art history than people believe now was a big deal,” Martin said. “The whole idea was to document the Camera Club and to find as much of the truth as we could.”
The existence of the club reveals an interesting time in the city’s history. The club’s members were primarily Japanese immigrants and Caucasian women, which was an especially unique combination for the time period.
“Seattle was really a culturally progressive city,” said Betsey Brock, the associate director of communications and outreach at the Henry. “This exhibition is an important piece of our city’s history. Looking at the way these photographers used photography and comparing it to now is very interesting. It was really a very cosmopolitan culture club.”
“There was a lot of racism toward Japanese-Americans at that time, and it’s very interesting that these people all worked together in a harmonious way without [it],” Martin said. “And the women were really considered on par with the men, which, at that time, was very unusual.”
For students interested in viewing particularly racy photographs in the exhibition, Martin said he recommends the work of photographer Virna Haffer. Haffer’s photography includes male nude portraits, which Martin noted was extremely uncommon of photography in the conservative 1920s culture.
“[She] was a little more daring in her subject matter,” Martin said.
Another of Haffer’s more interesting photographs is one that is untitled but referred to unofficially as “Distorted Head” because it depicts a man’s head that has been strangely abstracted.
“It’s something you could do in Photoshop,” he said. “I’m sure a lot of students love to play around with Photoshop and distort things, and here she was doing this in the [early 20th century] and doing it with film.”
Martin said he hopes that those who come and visit the exhibition will be inspired to pick up a camera and give the art form a try themselves.
“I would hope that [seeing the exhibition] would encourage students to try photography and look at things in a different way,” he said. “These people didn’t just snap their photographs. They were looking at their subjects from a different perspective than as just something you would glance at while walking by. They were portraying their own vision of reality.”
Reach reporter Kirsten Johnson at email@example.com.
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