By ELLEN ENDO, Special to the Rafu
Family members, friends, and devotees are mourning the passing of the man whose camera lens served as a window into postwar Japanese American community life and beyond.
Archie Miyatake, 92, who until his retirement operated the photo studio founded by his father, passed away Dec. 20. He is remembered for his artistry, kind demeanor and steadfast support of his community.
“To (others), he was …photographer, goofy guy, sweet man in the community, guy who climbs on things to get the ‘best shot,’” granddaughter Sydney Miyatake wrote on her Facebook page this week. “To me, he was Grandpa, loving, caring, builds me things, feeds me ice cream and soda.”
Archie learned his craft from his father, Toyo Miyatake, an Issei photographer who rose to prominence in the 1930s and ’40s and collaborated with leading photographic artists of that era, such as Ansel Adams.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 forced 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry — two-thirds of them American-born citizens — to leave their homes and businesses to live as prisoners behind barbed wire for the duration of World War II. The Miyatake family was sent to Manzanar along with 10,000 others in eastern California’s Owens Valley.
After the war, Archie became a familiar figure at community events, often accompanied by his brother, Bobby, and later by his sons, Alan and Gary. He could be seen waiting patiently in the background to capture key shots, then springing into action, moving quickly, standing on chairs or squatting low in order to memorialize moments that he knew were important to the families or organizations counting on him.
“(He) not only took pictures, he volunteered on the Nisei Week board. I remember him from the ’70s always being there,” recalls Joyce Chinn, longtime festival coordinator. “My memory is of Archie up on a ladder at Second and San Pedro streets, taking pictures during parade day.”
“First time I saw Archie, he was running around during Nisei Week with a bunch of cameras around his neck,” mused Little Tokyo businessman Ed Takahashi. Archie served on the Little Tokyo Business Association board of directors even after moving his studio to the San Gabriel Valley.
In the late 1990s, he became active in efforts to preserve the former Manzanar camp as a historical site and build an interpretive center so that the public could learn about the Japanese American wartime experience. The center opened in 2004.
With a sly smile, he once told Alisa Lynch-Broch, Manzanar National Historic Site’s chief interpretive officer, “You know, I also have some good memories of Manzanar, I met my wife there.” At the moment, wife Take leaned in and kissed him.
The former Takeko Maeda lived in Manzanar’s Block 15, and the Miyatakes lived in Block 20. Both were teenagers at the time, enrolled at Manzanar High School. He graduated while in camp (Class of ’44). She was Class of ’45.
Lynch-Broch commented, “He was a friend to Manzanar, professionally and personally. In working for decades to preserve his father Toyo’s legacy, Archie created his own. He helped to make Manzanar’s exhibits, film, and publications what they are.”
“Archie will always be remembered by all of us with appreciation and affection, not just for what he did, but for who he was,” she added.
Former Los Angeles City Councilmember Jan Perry, currently general manager of the city’s Economic and Workforce Development Department, has an enduring memory of Miyatake:
“I am looking at a photo he gave me many years ago. I enjoyed talking to him about his photography because I like taking pictures, too.
“The photo he gave me is on the wall at my desk in my office, so I look at it every day. He had a special gift for capturing the quiet moments in people’s lives with great technique and emotion. His perspective will live on through his work.”
He touched the lives of many others, who through Facebook and comments to The Rafu, reacted to his passing:
Brian Kito, owner, Fugetsu-do, and president, Little Tokyo Public Safety Association: “Having our family businesses across the street from each other for many years, you grow up with this vision of Archie and his family, like they are part of your own family. His soft-spoken mannerisms and willingness to help a cause will always be what I remember most.
“Many of us still remember the street decorations during Nisei Week that lined the both sides of the streets of Little Tokyo. Well, it was Archie that took care of this job for many years. But his most important role was that of a historian for Little Tokyo, capturing the images from behind his camera…rarely in the photos himself. (We) will miss him mostly because of the things he did without recognition.”
Cynthia Endo, former Rafu Shimpo editor: “It saddens me to say that Archie Miyatake passed away. He took our family portrait every five years for decades. He took my and my sister’s graduation portraits. He was a sweet, funny guy who was a strong supporter of the JA community. My condolences to his family. RIP, Archie.”
Mike Murase, creator of “Little Tokyo: A Hundred Years in Pictures”: “Back in 1983, when I was working on (the book), an image-centered chronicle of J-Town, I looked through 65,800 photos. Archie was kind and generous enough to allow me access to over 18,500 negatives and contact prints that were a part of the vast Toyo Miyatake collection.”
Mari Miyatake, Archie’s niece: “We say a sad farewell to my uncle. Today he is reunited with his dad and his baby brother, Tabo, and I’m sure the number one topic will be, of course, photography and who did it best.”
Michael Okamura, president, Little Tokyo Historical Society: “(We) lost a dear friend and partner who was a documentarian, like his father, of Little Tokyo throughout the many decades. Archie and the Toyo Miyatake Studio photographers captured the pure essence of the Little Tokyo community and the rich legacy of his community involvement and photographic talents will continue to be admired and learned from for generations to come.”
Bill Watanabe, community leader: “During the three decades that I was the executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, I had the opportunity to see Archie Miyatake at work with his camera(s) at numerous community events, capturing them for posterity for all time. Though he was always behind the camera, he could be seen quietly moving from one spot to another and his presence meant that event received a stamp of distinction — that it is worthy to be commemorated and remembered.”
Sydney Miyatake, photographer: “Yes, he taught me many things about photography and lighting, but to me that wasn’t as important as all the small things he did teach me. I’m going to miss his goofiness and his smile, but I will treasure them, too. I love you and miss you already, but I know you’re with (great) grandpa Toyo and uncle Tabo now, taking pictures and documenting the next life. RIP, Grandpa.”