I always knew that my paternal grandfather, who died before I was born, was an unusual person. Born in 1885, fifteen years before the end of the nineteenth century, he was an early Japanese immigrant to the United States, who came not to farm or make his fortune, but –of all things! –to study art. It is only recently, however, that I have realized what a significant and ground-breaking person he actually was.
Soichi Sunami (the given name means “powerful first son,” and the patronym is not the tidal wave, but a place name, uncommon even in Japan) started out as a painter, but like so many subsequent Japanese, he found his true love in photography, the passion that would carry him throughout the rest of his life. Joining the Seattle Camera Club, a group largely composed of Japanese immigrant photographers, with the addition of artist Ella McBride, he became a member of the Pictorialist art movement, which sought to marry the artful compositions and aesthetic refinement of painting with the then still relatively young technology of photography. After winning a local art award three times, he moved across the country to New York City, where he became one of only a tiny handful of Japanese immigrants on the East Coast. He soon enrolled at the Art Students’ League, and studied under the noted painter John Sloan, after whom he named his son (my father), and became friends and classmates with the remarkable Alexander Calder, inventor of the “mobile.”
A few years later he started an extended artistic collaboration with modern dance pioneer Martha Graham. Over the next five years, they together produced some of the most striking and iconic images of early modern dance. He also photographed Ruth St Denis, Agnes De Mille, Helen Tamiris and Vaslav Nijinsky, among others, and became friends with artist Natalie Hays Hammond and arts patron Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. It was this last relationship that produced one of his most significant and lasting contributions to the world of art.
Abby Rockefeller was a socialite who married financier John Rockefeller, whose name is still synonymous with copious wealth. At first she was viewed as a kind of Paris Hilton of her day, a socialite dilettante. Her fondness for what was then still the new and shocking modern art movement did little to improve people’s opinions of her. One of her chief critics was her own husband, who often complained about her spending his money on art that he considered worthless and ugly. So when she conceived of the idea of building a museum devoted to modern art in New York City, he strenuously resisted bankrolling it. When Soichi, a respected artist, joined the project, it gained some hard won credibility and legitimacy, and helped get the ball rolling for funding outside the family. Rockefeller returned the favor by offering Soichi a job on the museum’s staff as the official documentary photographer, a position he went on to hold for nearly forty years.
When war between the United States and Japan broke out in 1941, life changed drastically for Japanese Americans. While the West Coast Japanese, like my grandmother, were herded into prison-like “internment camps,” my grandfather was able to escape that fate, perhaps because of his wealthy and powerful friends. Nevertheless, he decided it was prudent to keep a low profile, and even went as far as to make the heart-wrenching decision to destroy any piece of his art that might be considered controversial or subversive, including all of his nude photographs, and a unknown number of other possible masterpieces as well.
Unfortunately, even after the war was over, Soichi largely abandoned creating original art in favor of focusing in on his official role of documenting the art of others. Then too, he had finally become a family man at the advanced age of 60, marrying my much younger grandmother, who had abandoned the West Coast after being released from internment. With two young children born in the following years, he likely had little enough time and energy left over for new creative endeavors.
I am not myself a big fan, generally speaking, of photography, but my grandfather’s work was extraordinary. I count it a privilege to be descended from him, and a part of the lineage of artists he started here in this country.