INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Nearly Discarded, Photographic Trove Documenting Postwar L.A. Nikkei Past Awaits New Future

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on October 14, 2010.)

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One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

— A common everyday saying

It’s been a little more than a year since Elwin Ichiro Ninomiya died Oct. 9. His obituary gave the basic information you’d expect: age, residence, survivors, time and place of memorial service or burial. Kind of ordinary.

For Glendale’s Michael Risner, however, Ninomiya’s death is now taking him on an extraordinary new journey.

A serious amateur photographer and member of the Director’s Guild of America who for the past 16 years has made his living as an assistant director/production manager in film and TV, Risner answered a Craigslist ad in August offering free photos and negatives “from the 1960s” to whoever wanted to go to the trouble of hauling it away. As a photographer, he thought it would be fun to get some old “hippie pictures” that he could scan and have fun with.

The ad took the Florida-born Risner to a renovation contractor’s place of business in Sunland, where he got three large plastic garbage bags. Upon examining the contents, he realized that the packaging and wording on the manila envelopes containing the large-format negatives revealed that this was more than a collection of someone’s family photos. It was from the archive of a professional photographer. Risner didn’t know it at the time but the photographs were taken by Elwin Ichiro Ninomiya (or his father, Kinso Ninomiya).

Elwin Ichiro Ninomiya shown in lower left photograph.

The contractor, Bob Tanabe, told Risner that there was more where that came from, as many as 35 to 40 more large bags of containing similar photographic materials, and that his instructions from the owner was to get rid of it. Risner told Tanabe that he wanted it all; he knew he had stumbled onto something big, but he didn’t quite yet know what this find represented.

According to Tanabe, he too, understood the significance of the photos, but as a renovation contractor, was a bit flummoxed as to what to do with the materials.

“Being of Japanese ancestry, I didn’t want to let it all just get buried somewhere,” Tanabe said. He also noted that he contacted the Japanese American National Museum. When someone got back to him, there was interest but the museum just didn’t have the space for all the materials.

“I saw those photos and said ‘Hey, there’s some history here. It seems like a big waste to get rid of these photos. Let’s take a chance and run something in Craigslist,’” said Tanabe.

According to Tanabe, many people came out. Some took the time to sift through the bags, while others just came and took two or three bags at a time, but he kept no tally of who they were.

All in all, Tanabe said there were about 100 large plastic garbage bags. But Risner was the one person who was most interested in saving the materials and was the one who ended up with about 50 percent of the total archive.

Upon closer examination, Risner learned that most of the photos were of Japanese Americans and Japanese, and that the photos were shot by either Ninomiya or his father, who started his photography business before WWII and revived it in the late 1940s in Little Tokyo after, like thousands of others, returning from being imprisoned in American concentration camps for people of Japanese descent.

Elwin Ninomiya eventually took over his father’s business, running it until sometime in the late 1980s. Presumably all the photographic material was stored by the Ninomiya family until recently. Although Risner says he didn’t get all of the materials — Tanabe corroborated that other yet-unknown people responded to the Craigslist ad and took some of the material, piecemeal — he did get most of it: some 100,000 images or about a half-ton of mostly black-and-white large-format negatives, prints and proofs, with some color images, too, representing about four decades worth of visual documentation of the Japanese American community in Los Angeles. There are also business-related invoices, receipts, letters and other paperwork, and all of it is sitting in his living room, waiting to be stored, cataloged, scanned and, eventually, made available to the public.

Although some of it is damaged and irretrievable due to the passage of time, most of the negatives are not only intact, Risner says 85 percent-90 percent of the images contained within them are dusty but pristine, like something out of a time capsule.

It’s not easy to articulate and convey the significance of what these photos represent — but suffice to say, this find is priceless. Included among those 100,000 pictures, most but not all of the subjects of which are of Japanese Americans, are visual documentations from bygone years of this community: events like Nisei Week and Japanese language school commencements to family portraits, the first formal pictures of babies, weddings, funerals and graduations, not to mention practical photos like ones needed for passports.

Odds are, if you are a native Los Angeleno of Japanese ancestry of a certain age, there are pictures contained in the Ninomiya archive of you, your family members or someone you know.

Right now, the bulk of the Ninomiya photographic archive is overflowing in Risner’s living room. Fortunately, he realizes fully the importance of this find. After Ninomiya’s photos came so close to being lost forever, either dumped into a landfill or, even worse, possibly destroyed in order to retrieve the silver from negatives, Risner is very interested in making sure this trove is not only preserved but made available to those whose images are captured therein.

Short-term, Risner needs to get the materials out of his apartment and into a storage facility. Longer-term, he sincerely wants to make sure that these photos are professionally archived and preserved, digitally scanned and then made available to the community of people in the photos and their relatives.

“I want to form a nonprofit corporation that will ostensibly own this archive so that it’s not sitting in my living room,” Risner said. He noted that a nonprofit organization can solicit grants and receive tax-deductible donations, something that he as an individual cannot do. He also has plans to use his filmmaking background to produce a documentary about the Ninomiya archive, as well as work with existing community organizations and universities. (It occurs to me that the photos could also serve as the basis for a beautiful coffee-table book.)

Risner has been in contact with Ninomiya’s survivors and has tried to convey that he is sincere in his intentions. “We went over what I want to do with this and how I want to have the family involved,” Risner said. He sent Ninomiya’s son his list of credentials to assure him that he is not trying to “do something that is counterproductive to the family, first of all, the community, second of all, then everybody else after that.”

Taking the view from a few steps back, it is fortunate indeed that Risner ended up with ownership of this trove. He realizes the import of what he stumbled upon and wants to do the right thing. It’s also worth noting that above all, what Risner needs to make sure that the photos are preserved, archived, catalogued and scanned can be summed up in one word: money.

Money is needed for space to store and work on the Ninomiya archive. Money is needed for legal fees. Money is needed for hardware such as computers, scanners. Money for all this and more is something that Risner doesn’t have. But he does own the materials and is sincere in his intentions.

I, for one, am personally fascinated by how this will all play out. It took Ninomiya four decades to amass this much material and will no doubt take several years to understand and sort out everything he recorded with his cameras. Fortunately, we are in an age where the technology to archive and share these materials is relatively inexpensive and available. It just takes time, trained personnel and money. I really want this to work out in the best way possible.

There are probably those within the Japanese American community who feel they have a proprietary right to the Ninomiya archive, simply by virtue of being Japanese American. I don’t necessarily agree with that. It’s now in the hands of Michael Risner. As the rightful owner, he could do anything with the Ninomiya archive. Fortunately, he is taking steps to see to it that these photographic materials, which could have been lost forever, are instead saved and shared. For that, he is worthy of being commended and assisted however possible. He’s accepting monetary contributions via a site he created, savingninomiya.com. You can also view some of the photos retrieved from the archive.

Maybe Bob Tanabe, who recognized that the Ninomiya archive should not just be thrown out, said it simply and best: “It’s certainly history that needs to be preserved.”

(Note: To learn more about this story, visit the following links: laweekly.com and youoffendmeyouoffendmyfamily.com

Thanks to Iris Yamashita and L.A. Weekly for background regarding this article.)

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Past columns can be viewed at www.IntoTheNextStage.com. Copyright © 2010 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)

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