Visual Communications Receives Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Funding

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Support earmarked for digitization, preservation, and activation of pioneering media arts organization’s valuable photographic archive.

July 1985: Visual Communications Executive Director Linda Mabalot gets an assist positioning an archival photograph from then-California State Assemblymember Gloria Molina, who was visiting with Little Tokyo constituents. The photo, depicting a 1930s-era Japanese American New Year’s Eve celebration, was included in the 1984 VC publication “Little Tokyo: One Hundred Years in Pictures.” (Photo: Visual Communications Photographic Archive)

Visual Communications, the nation’s premier Asian Pacific American media arts organization, announced Jan. 21 that it has received a prestigious community-based archives grant from New York-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The two-year Mellon Foundation community-based archives grant will enable VC to complete “Making Memories Matter Again,” a years-long process to digitize, preserve, and activate the “born-on-film” component of its Asian Pacific American Photographic Archive.

The VC Photographic Archive, long the organization’s key in-house production resource, was established by VC’s founders and core staff shortly after its inception in 1970, and today houses a still-growing collection of nearly 800,000 still images comprising materials created through VC’s first three decades of existence with 35mm and medium-format SLR cameras, and images created during the last two decades using digital photographic equipment.

“Probably more than our award-winning filmography of pioneering documentary films and videos — or for that matter, our long-running Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival — VC’s foundational core has been built around the stories and memories captured in still images created from the organization’s very beginnings in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” said Visual Communications Executive Director Francis Cullado. “The astounding range of material, and the stories and perspectives that these images capture, validates every day to our current staff members the importance of communicating the ongoing Asian American and Pacific Islander story to all those whose lives and experiences are reflected through them.

“We thank The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for believing in the impact and ongoing legacy of our Photographic Archive. We look forward to sharing the Asian American and Pacific Islander story as captured by VC’s founders and staff photographers.”

Oct. 11, 1973: In this uncredited photo, Visual Communications co-founder Alan Ohashi shares the tools of VC’s photography practice with a group of youths from Los Angeles Chinatown. Ohashi’s background as a visual artist informed his stewardship of the organization’s photographic publications and exhibitions. (Photo: Visual Communications Photographic Archive – George T. Ishizuka and Harukichi Nakamura Asian American Movement Collection)

Visual Communications’ Photographic Archive was created and developed by VC staff members as a means of housing the organization’s ongoing mission of documenting all aspects of the Asian American Movement through a still photographic practice. Beginning in 1970, the founding members of VC — Duane Kubo, Robert A. Nakamura, Alan Ohashi, and Eddie Wong — utilized still photography as a means of telling the story of Asian Americans during a time when those voices and experiences were marginalized and largely excised from the mainstream.

Aug. 7, 1972: As Visual Communications co-founders Robert A. Nakamura and Duane Kubo look on, VC staffers and project associates John Ito, Douglas Aihara, and Steve Tatsukawa assemble a large-scale photographic installation on Japanese American community history. (Photo: Alan Ohashi/Visual Communications Photographic Archive – George T. Ishizuka and Harukichi Nakamura Asian American Movement Collection)

Joined in later years by core staff photographers/filmmakers as Ed Ikuta, Dennis Kuba, Keith Lee, Linda Mabalot, Pat Lau Miller, Kaz Takeuchi, Janice D. Tanaka, and many others, the VC Photographic Archive’s rapid growth and usage among cinematic artists, scholars, and activists solidified its identity as the organization’s primary production resource, and enhanced VC’s reputation as the “media arm” of the Asian American Movement.

Augmented in later years by a companion Media Archive composed of both filmed and audio-taped oral histories, raw footage of the organization’s many productions, and study tapes and digital media from over four decades of public exhibition activities, the combined VC Archives currently serves the public-at-large as a community-based extension of Asian American and Pacific Islander studies and scholarship.

It also serves the needs of the organization’s ongoing education and production activities. Select holdings from the VC Archives have also been utilized by numerous community organizations and commercial print and broadcast entities.

Oct. 20, 1972: Visual Communications co-founder Alan Ohashi catches fellow VC co-founder Eddie Wong in a whimsical moment while the two were documenting Los Angeles Little Tokyo street scenes along what was then Weller Street. (Photo: Alan Ohashi/Visual Communications Photographic Archive – George T. Ishizuka and Harukichi Nakamura Asian American Movement Collection)

Nested within the holdings of Visual Communications’ Asian Pacific Photographic Archive are key collections reflecting VC photographers’ unwavering focus on aspects of the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience. Among these indispensible holdings are the AARDVARK Publications Collection, “Hito Hata” Film Project Collection, George T. Ishizuka and Harukichi Nakamura Asian American Movement Collection, Ed Ikuta Collection, Dennis Kuba Collection, Eddie Oshiro Collection, Philippine Hunger Project, Poston Chronicle and Poston Trek Collections, the Title 7 “Asian Americans at Work” Collection, and many others.

Before its black & white photographic darkroom was retired from service in 1998 to commence a shift to a “born-digital” still photography practice, Visual Communications staff photographers amassed a working collection of nearly 550,000 35mm and medium-format black & white and color negatives and color slides. To date, a little over half have been digitized from original negatives, with many of them utilized in numerous award-winning cinematic and media productions, publications, educational toolkits, and print, broadcast, and online destinations.

“Visual Communications’ Photographic Archive has served as my personal ‘Asian American Studies’ curriculum, and most assuredly has fulfilled the same purpose for many others who have utilized its assets over the years,” said Abraham Ferrer, VC’s archives and distribution manager, whose own photographic images documenting Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and events are a part of the archive.

Visual Communications’ many staff photo documentarians favored the battle-tested durability of Nikon camera equipment, as seen in this image of just some of the cameras that were used to amass much of VC’s renowned Asian Pacific American Photographic Archive. (Photo: Visual Communications Photographic Archive)

“The stories that these images tell are our stories, and in many cases cannot be found anywhere else. Making them accessible on more readily-available user platforms through the crucial support of The Mellon Foundation ensure that the Asian American and Pacific Islander stories are vital and integral components of the ongoing American experiment.”

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s support for Visual Communications’ “Making Memories Matter Again” is part of its community-based archives initiative, to support the creation and preservation of America’s cultural record composed of historical archives that aid in understanding the interconnectedness of diverse heritages. To access information on grants made by The Mellon Foundation, visit: http://mellon.org/grants.

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