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Three Generations: From Little Tokyo, to Manzanar, to San Gabriel, Toyo Miyatake Studio Celebrates 100 Years.
By Cheryl Cabot
Toyo Miyatake Studio in San Gabriel is celebrating 100 years in photography. Toyo Miyatake purchased a photography studio in Little Tokyo, California in 1923. Alan Miyatake, his grandson, is the current owner and manager of the studio. A lot of history is packed into those 100 years!
Shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt declared Executive Order 9066, which meant that anybody with Japanese ancestry, or any Japanese Americans were going to be forced off the West Coast and sent to internment camps. There were ten internment camps throughout the country. The Miyatake family was sent to the Manzanar camp, located in the Owens Valley of California.
Make a camera and film this injustice
The Miyatake family, Toyo, Hiro (his wife), Alan’s father, Archie, 17 years old at the time, as well as three other siblings, Robert, Minnie and Richard, were moved to Manzanar. After the family settled in, Toyo pulled Archie aside and said, “I have something to show you.” Toyo opened up his suitcase and pulled out a camera lens and a film holder. Archie immediately thought, “Oh my gosh, you are going to get in trouble!” It was illegal to have a camera or any kind of recording device in the camp.
Toyo explained he was going to “make a camera and film this injustice (Manzanar).” With the hope that by keeping this record, nothing like this would ever happen again. Toyo was caught several times taking photos, and his camera was taken away. In fact, it was taken away several times, but always given back. The camp director and Toyo had mutual friends and the director eventually ‘looked the other way.’
Who will click the shutter?
Once Toyo made the camera, he needed film. One of his other clients was California Hardware, just on the outskirts of Little Tokyo. Before the war, the owner said, “Hey, Toyo, can you show me how to photograph my product and set up my own dark room.?” Even though it meant he wouldn’t need Toyo to take his photographs anymore, Toyo helped set up an entire dark room.
Fast forward. California Hardware was the supplier to Manzanar and came up to the camp frequently, sneaking film to Toyo.
Eventually, Toyo became the official photographer for Manzanar, which made it legal for him to take photographs. In order for this be allowed, and give the camp director some ‘cover’, he had to have a non-Japanese person click the shutter. Many times, wives of camp staff would come and click the shutter. This worked for a while until one woman assigned to click the shutter while Toyo was taking a group shot, grabbed the lens before he could cover the film, and the picture was ruined.
After that incident, the camp director said to Toyo, “You know, I don’t see very well out of my left eye.” In other words, he was turning a blind eye to Toyo taking photos on his own. Once Toyo was given the ‘green light’ he could photograph anything he wanted and he could get all the film he needed.
Archie and trout
Archie, Alan’s father, was one of several young men who would leave the camp at night, hike up into the foothills and fish for trout. There were three creeks up in the foothills where they could find golden trout. It was dubbed “The Manzanar Fishing Club.” Toyo took a photo of these young men lifting the barbed wire to leave the camp, and coming back with a line of trout. A documentary movie was made about the fishermen, and Archie is a major star in the movie!
The Miyatake family were some of the first to be sent to Manzanar in 1942, and they were the last to leave in 1945. Alan thinks it was because his grandfather wanted to chronicle the camp up to the very end.
Re-opening portrait studio in Little Tokyo
Many families sent to internment camps had to sell their homes and all their belongings. Back from Manzanar, Toyo still owned a house in Boyle Heights, just outside of Little Tokyo. He had many Caucasian friends who were not only friends, but clients in Los Angeles. White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights, a client of Toyo, was close to his home, so he ‘worked out a deal with interns to watch his house while he was gone.’ Property ownership was not allowed by non-American citizens, so the house was under a cousin’s name, and held by the interns from the hospital, making sure the family had a house to come home to. The Miyatake studio had been rented, and all the equipment was stored during their absence, so Toyo was able to re-open his portrait studio in Little Tokyo. He eventually owned the property.
Toyo Miyatake Studios was (and is) known for their portrait photography. In addition to generations of weddings and personal portraits, Toyo was often asked to photograph Japanese dignitaries. He was hired by a Japanese newspaper in Japan to photograph the 1932 Olympics. He specifically covered Japanese athletes.
Japanese Crown Prince
A photograph of the Japanese Crown Prince, at the time, was taken at a hotel in downtown L.A. Toyo only had 5 minutes to shoot it because the Crown Prince was heading to a reception. Archie went with him, and they set it up in the lobby. “My dad was trying to be the best assistant he could,” Alan said, “so he went up to the Crown Prince to adjust his tie. My grandfather was behind the camera under the black cloth thinking, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to get in trouble’.” No one is allowed to touch Japanese royalty. Fortunately, nothing happened. The photo was taken and the Crown Prince left for the reception.
The story continued when in the 90’s, Alan got to photograph the Crown Prince, who had now become the Emperor of Japan.
Relocating to San Gabriel
In the mid-eighties, Archie and Alan relocated the studio to San Gabriel, at 235 West Fairview Avenue in the San Gabriel Village.
“We thought that since this is a new community for us we can make a go of it by adding on to our current clientele, and we were able to do that,” Alan said.
“I feel so fortunate that we take all the official portraits for the cities of San Gabriel, Alhambra, Monterey Park, El Monte and South El Monte. It’s turned out to be a good decision to stay and support this area.”
Japanese community history: Iconic photo using original box camera
Alan’s daughter worked with him at the studio before the pandemic, helping him transition to digital photography. Once the pandemic hit, he had to close the studio completely because it was regulated the same as a beauty salon. Alan did some work at home during the pandemic, but it was very limited. “The saving grace,” Alan said, “of all of this was my grandfather, because I’ve been managing his collection of Manzanar pictures. So, I’ve been able to sell licensing rights to people that wanted to make documentaries.”
The most iconic photo taken by Toyo in Manzanar is one of three young men, standing at the barbed wire fence, looking out. In a stroke of luck, Alan was able to take a photo of the same men, at the barbed wire fence in the same pose in 2016. He wanted to use the original box camera his grandfather made at Manzanar. Not an easy feat. He had to cut the film and find the chemicals, which were very difficult to find since the camera was so old. Toyo started with just a lens and holder for the film. He built the box around that, using a drain pipe to hold the lens, making it difficult to adjust. In the end, Alan was able to shoot the photo using the original box camera from Manzanar.
“Even if, down the road, I decide not to continue this, my goal is to archive my grandfather’s photographs,” Alan said. “A lot of the photographs that my dad and I took are of the Japanese community history. We always photograph the Nisei Festival in Little Tokyo every year. We have been the official photographer ever since it started. And I still do it, so there’s an archive there.”
“I just signed on with the Japanese American National Museum to archive all our photographs, and my grandfather’s photographs.” The archived photos will be on the Japanese American National Museum website when completed. “As much as (Manzanar) is not a good part of the American history, it is part of it and the story needs to be told,” Alan said.
Three generations of Miyatake family members have been telling stories through their photography. “Generations Capturing Generations”: Toyo, Archie and Alan of Toyo Miyatake Studios.
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