The past four days have looked like this:
Thursday 11am, Shinjuku: Interview with Kazuhiko Motomura, the 78 year-old former public sector employee from Saga, a rural area near Nagasaki, who doubles as an extraordinary collector of photography books and prints, and a selective publisher of five sublime, limited edition photo books, including three by Robert Frank and one by Jun Morinaga. Frank, Morinaga, and Gene Smith are interwoven into Motomura’s intriguing story, which I can’t go into in this post, but I will share a detail about our meet-up:
By telephone Motomura told my interpreter Momoko Gill that we should meet him on the sidewalk outside a bookstore in Shinjuku. We did that. Then he led us down into the nearby subway station where we walked for maybe two tenths of a mile, taking a number of ninety degree turns, before emerging above ground in front of the entrance to a department store several blocks away. We went inside the store and took a nondescript elevator up about eight floors where we found an almost empty coffee shop that was perfect for an oral history interview. Normally, I do everything I can do to conduct these interviews in the subject’s home, for a multitude of reasons. But this was better. Motomura’s submerged, exacting route to the coffee shop might be a metaphor for the unique focus and quality of the rest of his achievements.
Thursday 2pm, Shinjuku: We interviewed the 60 year-old photographer, Takeshi Ishikawa, who lived and worked with Gene and Aileen Mioko Smith in Minamata for three years 1971-74. He’ll spend three days with me and Momoko in Minamata next week, so I’ll write more about him later, perhaps for Paris Review (which will be linked here, of course).
Friday 11:30am, Minato-ku: We stopped by Photo Gallery International (PGI) so I could pick up a copy of Jun Morinaga’s legendary book, River, Shadow of Shadows, with a rare contributing essay by Gene Smith, published by Motomura’s Yugensha Press and dropped off by him at PGI. Morinaga was Smith’s assistant and close friend on the Hitachi project in 1961-62 and it was through Morinaga, via Smith, that Motomura originally met Robert Frank. I’m holding out hope that we can meet Morinaga tomorrow, the last day in Tokyo, but circumstances may not be in our favor. If not, that’s a reason to come back. I want to write more about him in the future.
Friday 1pm, Minato-ku: We met 84 year-old Taeko Matsuda, the founder of Cosmo Public Relations. Her’s is a story like Motomura’s that deserves more space than this. She founded Cosmo in 1959, gained the powerful Hitachi as a client, and hired Smith to photograph the company in 1961. Previously, she had gone to college in Los Angeles at USC – one of the first Japanese students to do so, and perhaps the first Japanese woman – and she spent six years working for NBC in Los Angeles, where she became a follower of Smith’s LIFE magazine work. Smith’s efforts on Hitachi lasted four times longer (of course) than Matsuda and Hitachi expected but the results – an extended spread in LIFE – redeemed everything, said Matsuda. She also said that when Hitachi would complain about Smith’s belabored operation, she would say to them, “He can’t help it; it’s what he does; just wait.” The degree of warmth she expressed toward Smith and her generosity toward my work were moving, as were that of her daughters, Lina Kumamaru and Kumi Sato.
Friday 3pm, Minato-ku: We went to the offices of Cosmo, a vital ongoing company now run by Kumi Sato, and I gave a talk about Smith and the Jazz Loft Project to their staff, which includes Account Director Ryu Kondoh, who is an authority on W. Eugene Smith and a historian of Cosmo and Smith’s Hitachi project, and who had his own copy of the JLP book, the first one I’ve seen on this trip. I was impressed by the welcoming engagement of the whole Cosmo staff.
Friday 10pm, Yokohama: We spent a couple of nights here at the home of Momoko’s family and on this night Yokohama resident, Masato Nishiyama, stopped by to drop off some Smith materials. Nishiyama is the 76 year-old photographer, Smith’s close friend and assistant during the Hitachi project. He had prints made by Smith and given to him as a gift; he had prints he made of Smith; and he had a painting by Smith.
Saturday 1pm, Roppongi: We met Masato Nishiyama back in the Tokyo neighborhood where Smith lived and had a darkroom for the Hitachi project, where Momoko and I wandered around on Monday. Nishiyama told us that Smith’s apartment and darkoom buildings no longer exist. He showed us where they once stood. He took us to the same Chinese restaurant, Kohien, frequented by him and Smith a half-century ago. He ordered the same dish that Smith often ordered, a noodle soup. He told us a story I’ve heard numerous times, about Smith eating a lot of soup because his mouth and teeth were beaten up from shrapnel wounds in Okinawa 1945. Nishiyama showed us around Roppongi and described the neighborhood as it was in 1961-62. He said the tallest buildings were 6-8 floor walk-ups made of wood planks and bricks. His description sounded a lot like the Flower District neighborhood around 821 Sixth Avenue during the Jazz Loft years. Today almost nothing from that period survives; there are skyscrapers everywhere, evidence of the 80s and 90s real estate bubble here. Nishiyama also let me keep a number of the prints he had dropped off in Yokohama the night before; prints he made of Smith working in Hitachi City, plus ones of Smith in 821 Sixth Avenue on a visit he made to NYC after Smith returned. One of the prints he gave me shows Smith leaning in the doorway of 821, looking out onto Sixth Avenue. Nishiyama’s vantage point for the picture was a flight up the stairwell, looking down. I’ll try to scan it and reproduce here soon. It’ll go in my book-in-progress, which has a new working title of Gene Smith’s Sink.
Sunday, back at the hotel in Kojimachi: A day of rest and wandering around Tokyo on foot by myself. I washed clothes at a coin laundry this morning and then walked from my hotel to Shinjuku, about six miles round trip, I figured. Tomorrow Momoko and I rejoin and have dinner with Keibo Oiwa, an ecologist and scholar who has written on Minamata. Tuesday we fly to Minamata for four days. Takeshi Ishikawa will be our guide. I feel privileged. In 1971 Ishikawa was a 20 year-old photography student in Tokyo when he met Smith and agreed to move to Minamata with him and Aileen. He was with them day and night for three years, from shooting in the field to printing in the darkroom and everything in between. Forty years later his loyalty to Smith hasn’t wavered.