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Bittersweet exposures

Studio photography pays homage to the Japanese Canadian experience

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It’s 10 a.m. and the museum is cool and silent. There is nothing to distract from the crisp black and white photographs that are lit up against the relative darkness of the gallery. Though there are a few outdoor shots, the focus of the exhibit is studio work, and nearly every image has the appearance of a carefully planned and executed moment. The McCord exhibition showcases Japanese-Canadian photography in British Columbia from the turn of the century up until just before the Japanese deportations and internments of 1942, in which much of their property – including photo albums – was seized and put up for sale by the Canadian government.

The collection includes portraits taken in the studio as well as photographs from weddings, graduations, and public gatherings, most of which feature Japanese-Canadian subjects. The meticulous, dignified attention to dress and careful poses have a fragile beauty that is amplified by the skillful photographic technique. As visitors to the museum come and go, you are left alone for a moment to contemplate the collection, and a complexity to these seemingly happy images emerges.

Ghettoized in labour camps even before the internments of the Second World War, and paid half the wages of white workers, the Japanese smile cryptically. A surreal calm and dignity masks a sadness which resonates in the somber ambience of the gallery. The space of the studio and the instant of the camera’s flash perhaps allowed for self-assertion, the control of destiny or self-portrayal or at the very least a reassuring photograph to send back to parents or relatives in Japan.

Some of the most striking photographs come from Senjiro Hayashi, who operated out of the small mining town of Cumberland. They include beautiful young girls with matching dresses and pearl necklaces, men in smart suits, wood cutters at an interior logging camp, and a carefully posed portrait of a baseball player standing at the plate in front of an expansive rural landscape.

The aims of the exhibition are to help recognize the contributions of Japanese-Canadian photographers, many of whom owned and operated their own studios, as well as to “raise questions regarding the value of photographs.” A careful look will reveal that this is no token tribute to Japanese Canadians.

The photographs stand on their own aesthetic merit and the show is far too sensitive and thoughtful to adopt a compunctious or moralizing tone. No photographs of the internments have been included and historical information is moderated to give emphasis to the meaning in the photographs themselves. The exhibition’s title “Shashin,” meaning photograph, is a word derived from the combination of the Japanese words for “true” and “reproduction.” These 80 stunning photographs capture an important historical moment, candidly revealing its unembellished emotional complexity.

The exhibit runs until September 14 at the McCord Museum, 690 Sherbrooke O. Admission is $7 for students.