Arts and Entertainment

And the rest is silence

David Martin champions first-class photographers history once labeled second-class.

But it was a single extraordinary painting that turned Martin into a lifelong booster of “outsider” artists, like the Japanese American photographers on whom he’ll lecture Feb. 24 at the Bainbridge Library.

As a young man in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Martin would often make the short trip to Buffalo to view works at a gallery there.

“I became very taken with a painting of the Falls, of a spot I came to a lot,” Martin says. “It was an Impressionist work and I assumed it was by Monet, but the artist turned out to be Claire Shuttleworth.”

When he asked about Shuttleworth, he was shocked by the dismissive reply that she was “just a local person.”

When Martin moved to Seattle in 1987, he opened Martin/Zambito Fine Art, featuring works by other marginalized artists he discovered in the Northwest. The gallery is one of a handful nationwide offering under-appreciated works from the first half of the 20th century.

In 1990, Martin learned from Robert Monroe, an archivist at the University of Washington’s Special Collections, of its documents from the Seattle Camera Club – founded by a group of Japanese-American photographers in October 1924.

Founding members included vivid and influential personalities: Soichi Sunami, who later became staff photographer at the Museum of Modern Art; Dr. Kyo Koike, who wrote and published the group’s monthly newsletter; and Frank Asakichi Kunishige, a graduate of the Effingham College of Photography in Illinois.

The group formed at the conjunction of several circumstances that would produce a small explosion of creativity in Seattle.

The city’s Japanese population increased dramatically as the century turned, growing from 125 in 1890 to 6,127 by 1910. At the same time, the dynamism of a developing New World aesthetic infused with refined Japanese sensibility would find expression through the new exploration of photography as an independent art form.

The influences were reciprocal. Just as the flattened picture plane of Japanese art can be seen in the paintings of Northwest school artists like Mark Tobey, the aesthetic of the Renaissance can be discerned in club members’ photographs stressing spatial depth and perspective.

“They even heightened the lighting, to make the space more three-dimensional,” Martin says.

The achievements of camera club members included an annual exhibit that attracted entrants world-wide. Although there were occidental members, 95 percent of the membership was Japanese.

The club endured for nearly a decade, ending with the Wall Street Crash in 1929.

“It was the Depression that killed the Seattle Camera Club,” Martin says. “With the exception of Dr. Koeike, they were all borderline financially, even in the best of times.”

F ew works of Seattle Camera Club photographers survived the exclusion of Japanese Americans in World War II.

Photographs and camera equipment were seized by the authorities, and prints and negatives were destroyed in the days following Pearl Harbor.

Bainbridge photographer Suzeko “Henry” Takayoshi watched his neighbor taken away because the FBI found binoculars he kept for bird watching. Takayoshi destroyed his own work, fearful that the FBI would view the photographs as proof that he was a spy.

Fortunately, portraits he had done for islanders were preserved by his subjects, and formed the basis for a retrospective held at the Bainbridge Library in 1987, when Takayoshi was 88 years old.

Martin has looked nationwide for remaining works by members of the Seattle Camera Club, and has amassed a huge collection.

“The research aspects, locating the art and lecturing are really my passions,” Martin says. “I’m an art historian – without the degree.”

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