I love looking through old family photos. My mind can’t help but invent a story about the people, time, place, and circumstances of the photos. I can look at them for hours. Most of these old photographs have an awkward charm about them that I have a fondness for (see my post about basketball) but I have encountered very few photographs that go beyond simple representation to actual story telling.
When I came across these photos, I was struck by two things. Firstly, the subjects were asian and secondly, the extraordinary level of photography. I learned from the antique shop owner that these came out of a family album (I soooo wish the album was intact for me to buy). The family is Japanese-American from Pasadena, California and these photographs were probably shot in the 1930s. This would mean that these people were most likely Issei, or first generation Japanese-Americans who immigrated before the Immigration Act of 1924. This time period was a short window of establishment and economic stability for Japanese immigrants, a golden age before the tumult of WWII. The feeling of this era really comes through in these photographs.
The photography has a refinement of composition and depth of storytelling that is really quite astonishing, especially given the time period. To really appreciate the level of photography, you have to know that documentary photojournalism didn’t really exist at the time these were taken. The 35mm camera had just come onto the scene and along with the Leica, changed how many photographers shot. Names like Bresson and Capa were not yet known. The photographer is using framing, layers, and composition to organize his subject in a manner that provides context and complexity without great photographers to learn from or imitate. I really wish I could talk to this photographer. I feel a connection with him and the way he shoots. Not only is he inspiring to me, I feel that he really understands my approach to photography as well. I imagine that we would have a lot to talk about. I’ll talk through some of the photos so you can get an idea of what I mean.
Take the shot above for example. The photographer has used the edge of his frame and the windows of the ship to create strong framing around his subject. He has chosen to shoot in vertical orientation, filling most of the frame with streamers that run from the ship to his vantage point. This angle allows the viewer to feel what it is like to be there and to give greater context to the image. This is one of the advantages of shooting wider—more context.
Another example of a wide shot that tells more of the story is the first photo. The photographer has decided to frame the shot wider to include greater context. The ocean is nicely framed and the inclusion of the light roofing really sets the scene for this outdoor dining experience. The photographer also chooses a moment of action, adding intrigue to the image.
The above photo is really successful at drawing the viewer into the story. The backlighting and strong framing draws the eye immediately to the man in the glasses. As you catch his gaze you see that he is looking affectionately at the little girl peering in from the foreground. The photographer again uses vertical framing with some real purpose. He fills the foreground with the girl peering in and chooses to include the perspective lines of the roof overhead to direct the viewer’s eyes.
The photo above is a good example of the use of layers. There are three groupings of people in fore, mid, and background. The photographer has carefully lined up the image so that every individual in each layer is distinct. And again, the photographer has chosen to shoot wider, including expanse of open field in the far background to provide context, which really adds to the feel of the image.
This photo shows a unique framing. The shape of the deeply textured, rocky shoreline is used to frame the three subjects. While this isn’t very clean, it is creative and effective, especially since the black of the men’s suits really pops.
This last photo is a more formal composition. The photographer is using the mirrored reflection of the mountains to form an hourglass shape that points to the subjects.