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LITTLE TOKYO : A Picture-Perfect Tribute to Miyatake

August 01, 1993|IRIS YOKOI

It was 1942, and Japanese-American photographer Toyo Miyatake had smuggled a camera lens and film plate holder into the Manzanar relocation camp, where he and his family were sent to spend World War II.

The U.S. government had forbidden Japanese-Americans from keeping photographic equipment. But Miyatake had a friend build a wooden camera body for his lens, and he sneaked out in the mornings to shoot what would become historic photographs of the dusty desert and life in the barracks where thousands of Japanese-Americans lived during the war.

Now the late photographer has been memorialized with a bronze replica of that primitive box camera outside the Japanese American National Museum at 369 E. 1st St. The 5-foot, 300-pound sculpture, unveiled two weeks ago, includes a slide projector that flashes 28 of Miyatake's Manzanar and Little Tokyo photographs on the museum windows in the evening.

Funded by $17,000 from the Community Redevelopment Agency, the sculpture was created by Nobuho Nagasawa, a Tokyo-born visual artist who has also created public works for the Metro Green Line's LAX Gateway station.

Using Miyatake's camera as a model, Nagasawa treated the bronze to resemble the wooden body of the original.

Now considered the foremost chronicler of Los Angeles' Japanese-American history, Miyatake, who died in 1979 at 83, was already an established photographer before World War II. A close friend of photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, the Japanese immigrant opened his first studio in Little Tokyo in 1923. There, he shot all the local events--weddings, birthday parties, funerals and parades--and family portraits.

When he and his wife, daughter and three sons were sent to Manzanar, Miyatake secretly took the lens and film holder with him without telling his family, said Archie Miyatake, his oldest son, who kept the original box camera.

"He thought that people being interned in camp was an important part of history . . . and it was his responsibility to record it," said the younger Miyatake, who was high-school age at the time. "But I guess he never thought it was going to become this important."

Eventually a kind camp director allowed Miyatake to send to Los Angeles for his camera equipment and set up a studio in the camp to shoot internees' portraits, weddings and funerals. But to conceal Miyatake's involvement, a Caucasian woman was hired to sit at the studio and click the camera's shutter, his son said.

Upon release from Manzanar in 1946, Miyatake re-established his 1st Street studio, where it remained until the building was demolished in 1985. Archie Miyatake, who took over the business, moved the studio to San Gabriel after he was unable to find another location in Little Tokyo.

He said he would like to move the studio, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, back to the community to which his father was so dedicated. Even after a stroke that eventually led to his death, the elder Miyatake insisted on visiting the studio daily.

"I used to pick him up every morning (at his East Los Angeles home) and bring him Downtown, because he wouldn't stay home," his son said. "Whenever I was a little late, he'd call and say, 'When are you going to come?' "

The bronze sculpture at 1st Street and Central Avenue is a fitting memorial, he said. "I feel very honored that they put something like that up to remember him," he said.

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