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J. T. Sata: Immigrant Modernist

J. T. Sata, Untitled (Man Walking out of Tunnel). ca. 1930. Gelatin silver print. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family. (2005.187.2)

Japanese immigration to the United States began during the Meiji Restoration (1868–89), a period that brought industrialization and urbanization to Japan. This modernization often favored urban areas, with taxes falling disproportionately on rural farmers.1 Many young men faced diminished opportunities, especially those who were not firstborn and were therefore unlikely to inherit family assets. In response, thousands of young Japanese men, mainly farmers, immigrated to the United States.2 Women followed, often as picture brides.

J. T. Sata, Untitled (Self-Portrait), late 1920s. Gelatin silver print. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family (2005.187.49)

Tadanao Sata (1896–1975) immigrated to the United States in 1918. He was unlike the average immigrant, however, as he had thirteen years of education, which was more than the typical farmer. Also, importantly, his heritage was samurai, and of a particularly elevated station.

Despite his status, Sata was unable to inherit his family’s assets because he was not his father’s eldest son. He felt that his best opportunities would be in America, so he boarded the Tenyo Maru at Yokohama and departed for the United States. He arrived in San Francisco on December 26, 1918, after which he traveled south to Los Angeles.

He adopted an English first name, as did many immigrants from Japan. He went by James and signed his name J. T. Sata. On his own and with no family in the United States, he worked first as a servant, then in the green grocery business. Nothing about his beginnings in the United States distinguished him from the multitudes of other immigrants.3

* * * * * 

Sata longed to be an artist. When he left Japan, he brought with him a small sketchbook filled with lovely depictions that he made of Kagoshima, likely as a keepsake of his homeland or as a reminder of his aspirations. Yet, it was in another medium that he realized his most important accomplishments.

In 1921, Sata acquired instructional materials from a photography school, the Palmer Photoplay Corporation, located a few blocks from Little Tokyo. Although he did not enroll due to illness, he did learn photography, perhaps from H. K. Shigeta, a prominent area photographer who ran a small photography school at his Little Tokyo studio.

In 1923, a group of art photographers began to gather for the first time. They formally organizing in 1926, with Sata as a charter member. The group went by several similar names but is best known as the Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California (JCPC). They were always based in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, where their efforts were bolstered by The Rafu Shimpo newspaper, which sponsored photographic exhibitions each year beginning in 1924. A local business, the T. Iwata Art Store, which sold cameras, processed film, and printed photographs, offered annual prizes for the best photographs beginning in 1925. The store also provided employment for many of the area’s best photographers, including Sata.

The JCPC maintained club rooms where they held exhibitions and critiques, for which members were expected to produce new work each month. While a few members operated professional portrait studios, the majority were dedicated amateurs like Sata. They travelled together to photograph the area mountains and sea. They captured scenes at nearby Hollenbeck Park, among its trees, gentle slopes, and small lake. Some photographed still lifes in makeshift studios, usually in their kitchens or living rooms. At one of the club’s locations, there was a darkroom for members’ use. More often, however, negatives were developed in bathtubs or kitchen sinks, and prints were made in closets or bathrooms.

Along with other Japanese Americans photographers, the JCPC members developed a recognizable style that employed the flat decorative patterns and two-dimensional shapes of their Japanese artistic heritage. In Los Angeles, photographers combined this style with a desire to be modern—to create works that exemplified a new modern world by utilizing abstraction and emphasizing geometric forms. Japanese art had influenced European and American Modernism, so it is no surprise that the club’s mixture of Japanese aesthetics with Modernism coalesced seamlessly. J. T. Sata’s best work exemplifies this combination.

Photographs by JCPC members, including Sata, were exhibited and published worldwide, particularly from 1925 to the mid-1930s. Sata’s most active period as an exhibitor was 1927 to 1931. His photographs were seen in Belgium, Canada, England, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United States. He exhibited at least twice at the prestigious London Salon, in 1929 and 1930. In 1931, he was one of only fifty photographers who received a special invitation to exhibit in Brussels.

It is astounding how accomplished Sata became as a photographer in a very short time. One of his prints—dated 1926, the same year the club was founded—was done only five years after he first considered studying photography at the Palmer school. The photograph (fig. 1) is one of the most forward-looking examples of photography produced in America at the time. An abstract play of small spheres and triangles overlaid with a crackle pattern, the image was created at a time when most photographers were producing conventional scenes of domestic life, staid portraits, or standard landscapes. While most photographs done by the Japanese Americans were based upon nature, as were many of Sata’s images, this one was not. It was also technically unusual. Sata composited the image by combining two film negatives, a darkroom technique that was seldom used by Japanese Americans.

Figure 1. J. T. Sata, Untitled (Triangles and Balls), 1926. Gelatin silver print. Japanese American National Museum, Japanese American National Museum,,Gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family. (2005.187.4)

A number of Sata’s prints evince this modern approach, including one with a female nude (fig. 2) teetering on the edge of a curved line, as if she is walking a tightrope.

Figure 2. J.T. Sata, Untitled (Woman Teetering on Spiral), ca. 1930. Gelatin silver print. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family. (2005.187.106)

Here, Sata again employed the technique of compositing two negatives—one of the female and one of huge concrete pipes laid end to end, with the light between them appearing as spiraling lines. These techniques are reminiscent of works by European Modernists from the same period, such as László Moholy-Nagy and František Drtikol. The work also recalls photographs by H. K. Shigeta, which supports the idea that Shigeta may have been Sata’s teacher.

A portrait of an unidentified man offers another example of Sata’s modern approach (fig. 3). In this skillfully complex arrangement of elements, the figure is placed in the lower corner of the image, which is a Japanese compositional device borrowed by European and American Modernists. Triangular shapes in the opposite corner diagonally balance the man’s image, and the triangles seem as important as the figure itself. Subtle shadow patterns near the bottom breathe openness into an otherwise flat space.

Figure 3. J. T. Sata, Untitled (Portrait), 1928. Gelatin silver print. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family. (2005.187.1)

Where did such modern imagery come from? While Little Tokyo has often been characterized as an isolated enclave, these photographers were well connected to the broader art world through publications, exhibitions, and personal connections. JCPC members were likely exposed to works by Modernists such as Alvin Langdon Coburn, whose abstract Vortograph appeared in 1917/18 issue of Photograms of the Year, and László Moholy-Nagy, whose photographs were reproduced in the 1926/27 issue of Photofreund Jahrbuch.

Figure 4. J. T. Sata, Untitled (Artichoke Halved), 1927/1930. Gelatin silver print. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family. (2005.187.12)

In 1920, Sata may have seen Exhibition of Paintings by American Modernists, the first showing of modern art in Los Angeles, which was mounted only a few miles from Little Tokyo at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art.Prominent photographers Edward Weston and Margrethe Mather befriended photographers in Little Tokyo, and Weston was given at least three exhibitions there (1925, 1927 and 1931). These shows corresponded with the period during which Weston was becoming a Modernist himself. In fact, the influences may have gone in both directions. One of Weston’s renowned modern photographs is of an artichoke cut in half, which was done in 1930. Sata also photographed the subject, before Weston, in 1927 (fig. 4).

In 1932, Sata was injured in automobile accident, which left him with a limp for the remainder of his life. A year earlier, he married a California-born woman, Yoshie Seki, and in 1933 they had a son, Frank. Sata’s life had become more complicated, and he dropped out of the photography club for several years. He rejoined the club and resumed exhibiting in 1936, but the earlier period of exhilarating creativity was over, as it was for most Japanese Americans.

The unbridled enthusiasm of the 1920s, a period that embraced newness and modernity, dissolved among the debilitating effects of the Great Depression during the 1930s. Following the onset of World War II and the issuance of Executive Order 9066, cameras were deemed contraband for those of Japanese ancestry, and photographs by Japanese Americans were seen as suspicious. In this climate, many Japanese Americans discarded, abandoned, or destroyed their photographs. Fortunately, Sata was able to hide his camera and prints for the duration of the war with a sympathetic White family.

* * * * *

In March of 1942, the Sata family was forcibly moved into a horse stall at Santa Anita Racetrack, which had been designated a detention center. They were not alone. More than 8,500 people were housed in horse stalls while barracks were hastily constructed. When completed, the Sata family was moved to barrack number D7 Block 9. Such barracks would temporarily accommodate more that 18,000 people.5 By October of 1942, all of the residents were uprooted again and transported to one of ten concentration camps located across the United States.

The Sata family’s time at Santa Anita ended in October of 1942, when they were moved by train to a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas, where they stayed until it closed in June of 1944. From there, they were moved again to another site at Gila River, Arizona. The two locations— one in the rainy Mississippi River Delta, the other in the arid desert—could not have been more different.

With the inherent indignities and humiliations of racism and imprisonment, it is a tribute to Japanese Americans that they demonstrated a remarkable resilience and dignity. A surprising number made art while incarcerated.

When Sata and his family were first detained at Santa Anita, he made colored pencil sketches similar to the ones that he had done earlier of his beloved Kagoshima (fig. 5). At Jerome, Sata painted wooded areas during various seasons of the year, depicting barracks smothered in snow or trees displaying brilliant foliage. At Gila River, he portrayed the austerity of the desert landscape and the stunning sunsets. These artworks by Sata were neither experimental nor Modernist. Rather, they are artful records of life during incarceration, without depicting its hardships or ugliness. Seemingly, Sata sought beauty as an antidote to the indignities of imprisonment.

Figure 5. J. T. Sata, Untitled (Santa Anita—Horse Stall Interior), October 10, 1942. Colored pencil on paper. Courtesy of the CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family.

Even so, a dark undertone suffuses these works. The delicate shades of blues and greens in the Santa Anita drawings are infused with the dark irony of being created while the artist and his family were confined to a horse stall or nearby barracks. Sata’s favorite painting, which hung prominently in all of his homes following the war, further illustrates the point (fig. 6). It shows a figure, likely a woman, virtually alone on a road flanked by barracks. The tones of the painting are dark and foreboding—the sky is a muddled yellow instead of blue, and the land is mostly deep browns and shadowy blacks. The figure appears dwarfed by the vast sky and towering trees. The nondescript rows of barracks cannot help but symbolize confinement and the loss of identity.

Figure 6. J. T. Sata, Untitled (Landscape), c1942–1944. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family.

Though these later paintings seem completely removed from Sata’s earlier photographs, there are continuities. Sata’s photograph of a man walking out of a tunnel alone in urban Little Tokyo is reminiscent of his favorite painting. In both images, a single figure seems to express isolation and fortitude in the face of a daunting, complicated world.

* * * * *

After the war, in October of 1945, the Sata family was among the last to leave Gila River. As they owned neither house nor business to which they could return, they were essentially nomads in search of a new life. Sata found work in Phoenix, Arizona, as a gardener, and his wife as a domestic. Later, they ran a twelve-seat diner in Guadalupe, California, while their son Frank did squat work in the nearby agricultural fields. In 1947, Sata found a more permanent situation as a custodian at an elite girl’s school in Pasadena, the Westridge School, a position that came with housing for the family. He became a beloved fixture at the school, where he was appreciated for his artistic talents. He remained there for the rest of his working life.

Notes

1. Christopher Gerteis, “Political Protest in Interwar Japan–1: Posters & Handbills from the Ohara Collection (1920s-1930s),” MIT Visualizing Cultures
(accessed November 16, 2023).
2. Cecilia M. Tsu, “Sex, Lies, and Agriculture: Reconstructing Japanese Immigrant Gender Relations in Rural California, 1900–1913," Pacific Historical Review 78, no. 2 (2009): 174.
3. Information regarding J. T. Sata is from interviews with Frank Sata, 1981-2023, and from Kagoshima 9066 Westridge: The Life and Art of J. T. Sata, A Japanese Immigrant in Search of Western Art, Frank T. Sata with Naomi Hirahara (Pasadena, CA: Raymond Press, 2019).
4. Today, the museum is known as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art was founded in 1961 to exhibit art exclusively.
5. Konrad Linke, "Santa Anita (detention facility)," Densho Encyclopedia (accessed Oct 29, 2023).

* * * * *

Sixty of Sata's photographs, along with photographs of Sata’s concentration camp paintings and drawings as well as family artifacts from camp are now on display at JANM in the exhibition J. T. Sata: Immigrant Modernist, curated by Dennis Reed. This essay was originally published in the exhibition booklet, now available at the JANM store.

Join Reed for one of three upcoming walkthroughs of the exhibition, each featuring a special guest:

Saturday, June 15: Curator Tour with Dennis Reed and Naomi Hirahara
Saturday, July 20: Curator Tour with Dennis Reed and Virginia Heckert
Saturday, August 17: Curator Tour with Dennis Reed and Robert Hori

 

© 2024 Dennis Reed

artists arts California Japanese Americans J. T. Sata Los Angeles modern art photographers photography United States World War II camps
About the Author

Dennis is a curator, collector, artist, and writer who is best known for rediscovering Japanese American art photographers whose works were, to a large extent, lost in the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans at the onset of World War II. He has curated over 50 exhibitions, large and small, for such institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Huntington, the Oakland Museum, the Corcoran Gallery, the Chinese Historical Society of America (San Francisco), the California Museum of Photography, and the Japanese American National Museum. He has written for Stanford University, Oxford University, UCLA, and UC Riverside. Among his publications are, Pictorialism in California: Photography, 1900-1940, for the Getty Museum and The Huntington, Japanese Photography in America, 1920-1940, for the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, and Making Waves: Japanese American Photography, 1920-1940 for the Japanese American National Museum. He is the retired Dean of Arts at Los Angeles Valley College and the former Chair of the Photographic Arts Council at LACMA.

Updated September 2022

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