Kyo Koike


Name Kyo Koike
Born February 11 1878
Died March 31 1947
Generational Identifier

Issei

Dr. Kyo Koike, medical doctor, photographer and poet, led the Pictorialist movement of photography as part of Seattle's rich artistic legacy from 1920 to 1930. The Pictorialist style, an international aesthetic movement, with its emphasis on nature and emotion and presenting the photograph as art, became an important fine art outlet for West Coast Japanese American artists in the 1920s, although they were largely self-taught and their photography avocational.

Early Life and Photography

Born in Shimane Prefecture 1878, only ten years after the end of the Edo Period, Dr. Kyo Koike owned a thriving medical practice in Japan. He was the son and grandson of doctors practicing Chinese herbal medicine and attended medical school in Okayama to study Western medicine, which was taught in German. A friend convinced him to come to Seattle to help Japanese immigrants, some of whom did not speak enough English to get adequate medical care.

He arrived in Seattle in 1916 at the age of 38 and established a medical clinic on Main Street near 5th Avenue. He lived in a space behind the office and kept his clinic open for long hours, into the night, so Japanese workers could come in after their shifts ended. After a time, it was noted that his hours became flexible so he could pursue his photography interests, which he had begun in Japan. Dr. Koike also was an active haiku poet and organized the haiku club in the Japanese community.

Dr. Koike first showed his work at the Frederick & Nelson department store's successful Pictorial salons starting in 1924. This marked the onset of Pictorial photography exhibitions in Seattle. It should be noted that Pictorialist photography stood as a contrast to the commercial portrait studio photography that was essential in the thriving Japanese community. It also should be distinguished from the Japanese American Social Realist and Modernist photographers whose important works recorded the World War II concentration camps, following the example of acclaimed photographers Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams.

Other notable Issei photographers joined him in forming the Seattle Camera Club that year, including Frank Kunishige, Hideo Morinaga, Hiromu Kira and Iwao Matsushita, all of whom exhibited in national and international photographic exhibitions. Joining 39 charter members, a few Caucasians eventually became members, including the notable photography studio artist Ella McBride. The club's magazine Notan (Light and shade) was published from 1925 to 1929, edited by Dr. Koike.

In a 1927 open letter to fellow Seattle photographers in Notan, Dr. Koike publicly asked why few non-Japanese photographers wanted to join the group, and invited them to join. Few responded.

He eventually succeeded in having many photographs accepted to salons (juried exhibitions) and his greatest achievement was being named an associate of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1928. By 1929 he became one of the most exhibited Pictorial photographers in the world, according to scholar Nicolette Bromberg. The work of the Seattle Pictorialists mirrored the achievements of early Japanese photographers in Oregon, such as F.Y. Ogasawara, and California, notably in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The photography group's subjects ranged from atmospheric shots of children, figures from the back or from a distance, old Seattle buildings, parks and lakes. Natural sites drew the photographers, who took weekend trips to spectacular natural sites such as Mount Rainier which Dr. Koike called a "holy mountain," bringing it to the status of Mount Fuji in Japan.

In a 1925 article in Camera Craft magazine, published in San Francisco, Dr. Koike wrote, "You must become dreamy and wander in the land of imagination." Dr. Koike also wrote in 1925, "When I am impressed by something, I try to catch the first momental impression... my first impression won't betray me."

As a contrast to Dr. Koike's quiet natural landscapes, other Seattle Camera Club members such as Frank Kunishige, who studied fine art in Chicago, framed daring erotic photos of nudes and dancers in costume, a byproduct of his having worked with Ella McBride in photographing performing artists at the nearby Cornish College of the Arts.

Wartime Incarceration and Legacy

By 1929, with members' lives hit by the Depression and with meager funds for photo printing and mailing photos to competitions nationally and abroad, the Seattle Camera Club decided to disband. At the outbreak of World War II, most of the group members were incarcerated in Minidoka camp in Idaho. Their fine photographs were destroyed or scattered. Dr. Koike was 64 years old and was put to work as head of first, the Camp Harmony medical clinic in the temporary assembly center in Puyallup, then the Minidoka concentration camp in Hunt, Idaho. He led the medical staff in carrying out mundane tasks such as inoculations. Photographic equipment initially was banned in the camps. He corresponded with letters to fellow photographers living in other concentration camps and cities, sometimes sharing haiku poetry. With little to do, Dr. Koike again organized a haiku club in camp, and took up wood carving. He came back to Seattle after the war, weak from a hard life in rural Idaho, and took up concerns with the Buddhist temple and the haiku society. There is no record that he married or had a family in Seattle. He died in 1947 at the age of 69.

It is thanks to Dr. Koike's dear friend, the scholar Iwao Matsushita, that the Koike photographs and the Seattle Camera Club records were preserved in the University of Washington Libraries, leading the way to future exhibitions and studies of the Pictorialist photographers.

As to why this group of photographers gathered together and achieved recognition so highly, historian Robert D. Monroe of the University of Washington said there was a need among Issei to record the fine Japanese arts and crafts of their community members. The Seattle Camera Club often shared artistic events with Japanese poets in their midst. But perhaps their eyes also had been trained in the Japanese aesthetic sense. Mr. Monroe also can be credited with preserving the legacy and works of the Seattle Camera Club members through his library's Special Collections division.

As author Kazuko Nakane wrote about Dr. Koike and the Pictorialist photographers, "they began to seek beauty in common things and used straight photography to capture the quintessence of objects."[1]

Authored by Mayumi Tsutakawa, Independent writer and editor

For More Information

Bromberg, Nicolette. "Preserving a Legacy of Light and Shadow: Iwao Matsushita, Kyo Koike, and the Seattle Camera Club." University of Washington Library.

Fiset, Louis. Imprisoned Apart: The World War II Correspondence of an Issei Couple. Foreword by Roger Daniels. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Lee, Shelley Sang Hee. Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese American. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011. [Includes a chapter on Koike and the Seattle Camera Club.]

Martin, David F., and Nicolette Bromberg. Shadows of a Fleeting World: Pictorial Photography and the Seattle Camera Club. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.

Monroe, Robert D. “Light and Shade: Pictorial Photography in Seattle, 1920-1940, and the Seattle Camera Club.” In Turning Shadows into Light: Art and Culture of the Northwest's Early Asian/Pacific Community. Edited by Mayumi Tsutakawa and Alan Chong Lau. Seattle: Young Pine Press, 1982. 8-32.

Muir, Kathy. "Dr. Kyo Koike." Seattle Camera Club website.

"Preliminary Guide to the Kyo Koike Photographs, circa 1920–1940." Special Collections, University of Washington Library.

Sailor, Rachel. "'You Must Become Dreamy': Complicating Japanese-American Pictorialism and the Early Twentieth-Century Regional West." European Journal of American Studies 9.3 (2014).

Zabilski, Carol. "Dr. Kyo Koike, 1878-1947: Physician, Poet, Photographer." Pacific Northwest Quarterly 68.2 (Apr. 1977): 72-79.

Footnotes

  1. Kazuko Nakane, "Interweaving Light with Shadow," In They Painted From Their Hearts: Pioneer Asian American Artists, edited by Mayumi Tsutakawa (Seattle: Wing Luke Asian Museum, 1994), 55.