Toyo Miyatake: Preserving History Through a Lens

Photographs are powerful tools in telling a story. From a fading daguerreotype of a forgotten era to a snapshot taken moments ago with a smart phone, they can capture a moment in time - a freeze frame of the ongoing story of life itself.

Toyo Miyatake established his photography studio at a time of great growth for the Japanese American community in Los Angeles. In a career that spanned five decades, his photographs provided an intimate window into Little Tokyo and the lives of the community, as seen by someone who was actually there.

Born in 1896 in Japan, Toyo Miyatake moved to America in 1909 with his father and settled in the Little Tokyo area, where he founded his photo studio in 1923.

While interned at Manzanar during WWII, Miyatake famously built a camera body from stray pieces of wood. Attaching a lens that he had smuggled in, he now had a device to capture the life of Japanese American internees -- from the inside. His photos taken during this time reveal a perspective that differs from that of officially sanctioned photographers, which included notables such as Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange. These photos were exhibited along with Adams' work in the landmark exhibition "Two Views of Manzanar" at UCLA in 1978 -- the first time Miyatake's photos were displayed outside of the Japanese American community.

Today Alan Miyatake carries on the legacy began by his grandfather and continued through the efforts of his father Archie Miyatake. The studio has moved to San Gabriel, but it is still very much a part of Little Tokyo, in spirit if not physically. Toyo Miyatake Studio continues to preserve the faces of the Japanese American community as the official photographer of Nisei Week Queens, continuing the tradition that began at the very first Nisei Week festivities 80 years ago.

A monument to the dedication and works displayed by Toyo Miyatake now stands in Little Tokyo -- a replica of the camera he had built while interned at Manzanar. Located in front of the Japanese American National Museum at the very corner where thousands of Japanese Americans were round up to be sent out to internment camps, the public art monument doubles as a photo projector, displaying images of Japanese American life -- ensuring that their struggles and triumphs will forever be a part of the timeline of the community.

In the videos above, Alan Miyatake, grandson of Toyo and current owner of Toyo Miyatake Studios, discuss his family history, their role in L.A.'s Japanese American community, and the importance of photographs in preserving history.

Story of the Studio
Alan Miyatake maps where his grandfather began the studio in Little Tokyo, what led to its move to San Gabriel Valley, and the unique skills it has offered for generations.
The Legacy of Miyatake
Alan Miyatake describes the lineage of talent in his family that began with his grandfather Toyo.
The Principal Photographer of Manzanar
Toyo Miyatake took it upon himself to document the internment camp experience of Japanese Americans.
Remembering Manzanar
Alan Miyatake reflects on his family's conscious efforts to always remember.
The Craft and the Business
After three generations of Miyatake photographers, the expectations remain the same -- take great photographs.

About the Author

Yosuke Kitazawa is the Site Editor of KCET Departures.
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