Public Programs

Century-old photo album offers a new take on art history

Melissa Miles

Professor Melissa Miles, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, Monash University

Melissa Miles, Professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow from Monash University’s Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, will present the 2016 Mayne Centre Lecture at UQ Art Museum later this month. We caught up with Melissa to get a taste for this year’s lecture – the story of Ichiro Kagiyama – a Japanese photographer based in Sydney in the early 1900s. A recently discovered personal photo album of Kagiyama’s has prompted important discussions about gaps in the ‘White Australian’ version of our photographic history.

Q: What brought Ichiro Kagiyama to Sydney in 1906 and where did he fit in the local photography scene?
A: That is one of the fascinating mysteries surrounding Kagiyama. We can’t be sure that he did indeed arrive in Sydney in 1906. Some suspect that he was a stowaway who came to Sydney in the hope of finding work and a better life. But in an interview with immigration officials in the 1930s, Kagiyama comments that he came to Queensland when he was an infant. Kagiyama says that he was raised in Queensland and then traveled around Australia before ending up in Sydney as a young man in 1913. It’s a compelling story, but sadly there is no documentary evidence to support it. If Kagiyama was a stowaway (as many people in his home town suspect), a story like this would have helped him to evade some of Australia’s immigration restrictions. What we do know is that when Kagiyama was in Sydney he became an active member of the Photographic Society of New South Wales and worked alongside some of Australia’s best-known photographers. During his three decades in Sydney he opened his own commercial studio, worked for the magazine The Home and produced an extraordinary record of Australia’s Japanese community in the early twentieth century.

Q: Can you share a little about the time when Kagiyama was working in Sydney during the early to mid-twentieth century, described by some as a defining period in Australian photography?
A: Kagiyama was living in Sydney during a very exciting time. This was a period in which Sydney was modernising. He saw the Harbour Bridge being built, and photographed the construction of some new city buildings that still stand today. In the art world and in photography circles, traditional ways of representing the world were changing as practitioners experimented with new styles and modes of expression. While a lot of people know about this side of modern Sydney, fewer know that it was also a time when there was a thriving Japanese community. Japanese students and merchants helped to make Sydney an important centre of international trade, and their families played a key role in Sydney communities.

Q: Kagiyama made a valuable contribution to Australian visual culture but little appears to be known about him or his work. How would you describe his photographic style and why his work was important?
A: The history of Australian photography has largely been written as a record of white Australian achievement. This has meant that the work of non-Anglo Australians like Kagiyama has been neglected. His work is very important because it highlights Australia’s very long-standing cultural connections with Asia. Kagiyama captured the racial and cultural diversity of Australia during the era of the so-called ‘White Australia’ policy. Another thing that makes him such an interesting subject is that his work cannot be limited to a single photographic style. He refined his skills as a Pictorialist photographer, making very moody landscapes. But through the 1920s and 1930s he developed a sharper approach and experimented with different ways of representing the city at night and by day.

Q: What kind of insight does Kagiyama’s recently uncovered personal photo album provide and what does it reveal about his contribution to Australia-Japan relations?
A: The discovery of Kagiyama’s personal album in Japan is very exciting. It includes some of his earliest artistic work, and reflects his interest in a wide range of subjects from landscapes and city scenes to portraits. It also shows the importance of photography as a medium for building cross-cultural connections. There are photographs that his family sent to Australia from Japan to help Kagiyama keep in touch with news from home, and there are others that tell us about his life in Sydney. Thanks to Kagiyama, we can see how Japanese residents of Sydney were welcomed into the community and became part of the social fabric of the city.

Q: How does the under representation of photographers such as Kagiyama in Australian art history point to an over-emphasis on aesthetic links to other regions such as North America and Europe at the expense of important historical connections with Asia?
A: Australia’s history as a British colony has meant that its art history has been dominated by the movements and styles that emerged in the UK, Europe and North America. This is especially evident in photography history, where there has been a lot of emphasis on how Australian modernists were inspired by the developments of the European avant-garde. But Kagiyama shows us that there is another story – a hidden story that is only just coming to light. Anglo-Australian photographers also engaged with Asia during the early twentieth century. They showed an interest in Japanese aesthetics, and worked directly with Japanese photographers like Kagiyama and Kiichiro Ishida as friends and colleagues. Australia’s artistic connections with Asia are flourishing today, as seen in the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. But we need to learn more about how this shared creative heritage has a much longer history that dates back over a century. Kagiyama’s work is helping us with this important task.

Professor Melissa Miles is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow based in the Art History and Theory Program at Monash University’s Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture. Her books include The Burning Mirror: Photography in an Ambivalent Light (2008, 2010), The Language of Light and Dark: Light and Place in Australian Photography (2015), and The Culture of Photography in Public Space (2015, co-edited with Anne Marsh and Daniel Palmer). She is currently working with Professor Robin Gerster on an Australian Research Council funded project on Australian-Japanese photographic relations, and a book titled Photography, Truth and Reconciliation to be published by Bloomsbury.

Professor Miles will deliver the 2016 Mayne Centre Lecture: ‘Beyond a white Australia: A new history of modern Australian photography’ on Wednesday 19 October at 6.00 pm at UQ Art Museum, James and Mary Emelia Mayne Centre (Building 11). The Mayne Centre Lecture is generously sponsored by Philip Bacon Galleries. The lecture is free, all welcome. RSVP by 14 October 2016

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