What was Hiroshima like before the atomic bomb?

In 2008, Japanese photographer Hitoshi Ouchi made a remarkable discovery: the largest known photographic archive of Hiroshima before the United States detonated an atomic bomb over the city. This decades-old collection came from the Hiroshima studio, run by Wakagi Matsumoto, Ohuchi’s grandfather. It was operating just two and a half blocks away from what would become ground zero.

Wakagi Matsumoto – Artist in Two Worlds: Los Angeles and Hiroshima, 1917-1944 It opened last September at the Japan American National Museum and is an ongoing online exhibition of this important work. It includes short documentaries and online photo galleries divided into three sections: BiographyAnd AngelsAnd Hiroshima.

In 1906, at the age of 17, Matsumoto moved to Los Angeles to work as a farmer. He then studied photography through a correspondence course and a school in San Diego, where he developed a certain talent for spectacles. He worked under a portrait and documentary photographer Toyo Miyatakewho is best known for documenting the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Much of Matsumoto’s photographs capture the lifestyles that would be upended amid the war—on the American side, the farming lives of Japanese Americans in California (home to the largest number of Japanese Americans in North America) before the internment, and on the Japanese side, the images and daily affairs of the people in Hiroshima before the bomb .

In the rich panoramas of 1920s Los Angeles, we see views of farms, markets, and schools in dramatic sweeps that convey a sense of the land before car culture took over. In standard-size photos, the Salvation Army marches in parade along East First Street, one of the main lanes of Little Tokyo, and Japanese children perform a Shinto Regalia at Nishi Hongwanji Temple, still an important Buddhist temple in the city.

Wakaji Matsumoto, “Wakaji Matsumoto Self Portrait”

The panorama of Hiroshima shows a long funeral procession, the torii gate, and the cavalry. The image zooms out to Matsumoto to give us a view of Hiroshima in the 1930s. Portraits of the citizens of Hiroshima—children, farmers, young men and women—and a winter landscape, post office, and railroad yard all offer a peek into life just before the war. His standard-size photographs show awnings, a photo lab, and rice fields. While some are documentary, many are more expressive and artistic, playing with light, shadow, and shapes.

The exhibition’s juxtaposition of the two cities provides a glimpse into a world in the midst of the transition to the next phase of global capitalism and westernization. Horses and buggies exist alongside Ford Model As, and in both cities, people wear a mix of Japanese kimonos, hakama, and Western suits and dresses. In one glamorous photo shoot in Los Angeles, Matsumoto joined his family and neighbors for a photo, with the camera’s shutter clearly visible. It is arguably an early example of a group selfie complete with a furry black and white dog.

The presentation is accompanied by educational materials and two articles A History and Reflection by Karen Matsumoto, the granddaughter of Wakaji Matsumoto. by the time US President Truman gave the order To drop the bomb, the photographer and his wife lived 10 miles from ground zero, and stopped filming due to a lack of supplies.

We’ll never get a picture of exactly what they saw, but Karen Matsumoto described it this way: “My grandmother was hanging her clothes to dry outside when the atomic bomb was dropped. She said it sparkled in the sky and started spreading towards them. Could this be a shock wave, or the effect of an explosion?” , or hitodama (a fireball from Japanese folklore)?”

Wakaji Matsumoto died in 1965, after working in coal mines that weakened his health, and it would take another 42 years for his work to be rediscovered. Today, some of his photographs are featured prominently in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Now they are online for them to enjoy, appreciate and study.

Wakaji Matsumoto, “Wakaji and Hiroshima Camera Club. Wakaji (front left center) with the Hiroshima Koga Club, 1935”
Wakagi Matsumoto, “Roy and Takeshi at the Matsumoto Farm Los Angeles”
Wakagi Matsumoto, “Downtown Hiroshima from the Aioi Bridge, 1938”
Wakaji Matsumoto, “Miyajima Torii Gate, Otsukushima, Miyajima Island”
Wakagi Matsumoto, “The Woman at the Post Office, Hiroshima”
Wakagi Matsumoto, “The Road Home, Hiroshima”

Wakagi Matsumoto – Artist in Two Worlds: Los Angeles and Hiroshima, 1917-1944 is an ongoing online exhibition organized by the Japanese American National Museum and curated by Dennis Reid.

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