Picture Man: An American Legacy

Posted by on May 14, 2015

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In the early 1970s, Carol Diereck invited the Powell family over for dinner. The invitation wasn’t purely a friendly meal. Carol had uncovered something in the attic of the house she was inhabiting in Yakutat, a town in southeast Alaska.

Carol led her friends to the attic, where a shattered scene awaited them. Glass plates littered the floor, as though children had used them as ice skates, the guests said. More of the glass plates were packed in wooden boxes. Close inspection revealed the plates were glass negatives, a legacy of Shoki Kayamori, a man whose life was shattered like many of the negatives the Dierecks and the Powells encountered.

Seiki (Shoki) Kayamori

Seiki (Shoki) Kayamori

Japanese-born Kayamori arrived in Yakutat in 1912, where he lay his roots for three decades before taking his own life in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. His story, or the pieces that are left of it, are recounted in Picture Man: The Legacy of Southeast Alaska Photographer Shoki Kayamori, written by Margaret Thomas, a librarian and journalism professor at the South Puget Sound Community College. Her book was published by the University of Alaska Press.

Thomas traced Kayamori’s journey from Japan, to the West Coast and eventually to Yakutat, Alaska.

“I felt really lucky [to tell this story]. It was piecing together a puzzle,” she said. “The most satisfying part for me was to resurrect this person who was otherwise forgotten.”

Through around 30 years of photographs, uncovered decades after they were taken, Kayamori documented the daily life of the Native Tlingit community and the migrants who moved to Yakutat to aid in the fish canning industry. He became locally known as “Picture Man,” but it was his passion for photography that set in motion the events that led to his suicide. As World War II rattled America, Kayamori was accused of being a potential Japanese spy. Following the accusations, he took his own life.

The first plane landing in Yakutat, April 16, 1931. Pilot Bob Ellis took townspeople for rides, according to the collection guide. Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections, ASL-P55-679.

The first plane landing in Yakutat, April 16, 1931. Pilot Bob Ellis took townspeople for rides, according to the collection guide. Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections, ASL-P55-679.

Thomas’ book captures the complex racial relations in America at a time when Asian immigrants could not own property and were forced to endure extreme racism.

“He had been such a part of this community, but when things got bad some of his friends may have turned their back on him — the circumstances were extreme and frightening,” said Thomas. “This is a story about immigrants. We do this again and again with each wave of immigrants. I would hope people would think twice about ‘us vs. them’.”

What remains of Kayamori is a testament to his experience: becoming integral to the Yakutat community. He photographed the young and the old, community events, funerals, and the beautiful surroundings. One of Thomas’ favorite pictures taken by Kayamori is an image of the serpentine Nunatak Glacier. Describing the landscape she writes, “there are places where the ancient ice appears to edge within earshot,” making reference to a Tlingit elder warning to children, “speak respectfully…the glaciers can hear.”

Unidentified children sitting on porch. Courtesy of Seiki Kayamori Photograph Collection, Sealaska Heritage Institute Archives, SHI-72-9

Unidentified children sitting on porch. Courtesy of Seiki Kayamori Photograph Collection, Sealaska Heritage Institute Archives, SHI-72-9

Glaciers are integral to the Tlingit community, according to Thomas. Much of the community’s hunting and harvest culture depends on these immense sheets of ice.

But the relationship between the Tlingit and the glaciers has not always been peaceful. Powerful natural forces have overpowered Yakutat and threaten to do so again in the near future. The town lies near the Hubbard Glacier. In the past, the glacier’s gradual movement has blocked off the mouth of the Russel Fjord, resulting in flooding of biblical proportions once the ice dam finally broke. These events occurred twice – once in 1986 and again at a smaller scale in 2002. Residents keep a close eye on the glacier to prevent further devastation.

This relationship with nature — one of deep respect and wariness at its unpredictability — epitomizes the story captured in Kayamori’s photographs. “By preserving what he found interesting, beautiful, or important, Kayamori left an enigmatic portrait of himself,” wrote Thomas.

Courtesy of the  Alaska State Library.

Courtesy of the Alaska State Library.

To learn more about the book, and to order a copy, please visit the website of the University of Alaska Press.

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