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What was Hiroshima like prior to the Atom Bomb’s invention?

Hitoshi Ohuchi, a Japanese photographer, made a remarkable discovery in 2008: Hiroshima’s largest photographic archive before the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city. This decades-old collection came from Hiroshima Studio, run by Wakaji Matsumoto, Ohuchi’s grandfather. It was located just two blocks from ground zero.

Wakaji Matsumoto—An Artist in Two Worlds: Los Angeles and Hiroshima, 1917–1944This online exhibition, which opened at the Japanese American National Museum in September, showcases this important body work. It features short video documentaries as well as online photo galleries, broken down into three sections. biographical, Los Angeles, Hiroshima.

Matsumoto, then 17, moved to Los Angeles in 1906 to become a farmer. He continued his studies in photography at a San Diego school and correspondence course. There he discovered a special talent for panoramas. He worked as a portrait and documentarian photographer. Tōyō MiyatakeHe would be famous for documenting Japanese American internment during World War II. 

So much of Matsumoto’s imagery captures ways of life that would be upended amid the war — on the US side, the farm life of Japanese Americans in California (home to the largest Japanese-American population in North America) before internment, and on the Japanese side, portraits and daily affairs of the people in Hiroshima before the bomb. 

The 1920s Los Angeles panoramas show the rich views of farms, markets, schools and other buildings in dramatic sweeps. They give a sense that the land was before the advent of automobile culture. Standard-sized photos show a Salvation Army marching band along East First Street. Japanese children parade in Shinto attire at the Nishi Hongwanji Temple. It is an important Buddhist temple.

Wakaji Matsumoto, “Wakaji Matsumoto Self Portrait”

Panoramas of Hiroshima depict a long funeral procession with a torii gates and cavalry. Matsumoto zooms out so that we can see central Hiroshima during the 1930s. Portraits of Hiroshima citizens — children, farmers, young men and women — winter landscapes, the post office, and rail yard all offer a peek into life just before the war. His standard-sized photos include parasols, his photo laboratory, and rice paddies. Some photos are documentary, but others are more expressive and artistic and play with light, shadow and shapes.

The exhibition’s juxtaposition of the two cities provides a glimpse of a world in the midst of transition into the next stage of global capitalism and Westernization. Ford Model As can be seen alongside horses and carts. People in both cities wear a mix Japanese kimono and Western hakama as well as Western suits, dresses, and suits. Matsumoto, a neighbor and his family, took a photo in Los Angeles, where he clearly saw the shutter release. It is an early example of group selfies, complete with a furry, black-and white dog.

The show comes with educational materials and two essays. a history and reflection from Karen Matsumoto, Wakaji Matsumoto’s granddaughter. By the time US President Truman gave the orderThe photographer and his wife lived 10 minutes from ground zero. 

We’ll never have a photo of exactly what they saw, but Karen Matsumoto described it thus: “My grandmother was hanging up her laundry to dry outside when the atomic bomb was dropped. She claimed it sparkled in the sky and spread towards them. Could that be a shock wave, the impact of explosion, or a hitodama (a fireball from Japanese folklore)?”

Wakaji Morimoto died in 1965 after he had been working in coal mines which harmed his health. It would be another 42 year before his work was rediscovered. Some of his photos are featured prominently today in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. And now they’re online for everyone to enjoy, appreciate, and study.

Wakaji Matsumoto, “Wakaji and Hiroshima Camera Club. Wakaji (center left front) with the Hiroshima Koga club, 1935”
Wakaji Matsumoto, “Roy and Takeshi at the Matsumoto Farm Los Angeles”
Wakaji Matsumoto, “Downtown Hiroshima from the Aioi Bridge, 1938”
Wakaji Matsumoto, “Miyajima Torii Gate, Utsukushima, Miyajima Island”
Wakaji Matsumoto, “Woman at Post Office Counter, Hiroshima”
Wakaji Matsumoto, “The Road Home, Hiroshima”

Wakaji Matsumoto—An Artist in Two Worlds: Los Angeles and Hiroshima, 1917–1944This ongoing online exhibition is curated by Dennis Reed and organized by the Japanese American National Museum.

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