Margaret Thomas’s Picture Man is an unassuming slender book, but in her search to tell the story of frontier photographer Shoki Kayamori, she takes us through so many other layers of immigration history.
Like Frank S. Matsura who ended up in Okanagon County, Washington at the turn of the century in a town with a mostly white and native population, Kayamori’s images are all that’s left to document Tlingit life and how quickly it changed for people at the turn of the century. He initially came to Alaska to work the canneries and ended up staying in a two-room shack in Yakutat near the dock below overlooking the peak of Mt. St. Elias.
Kayamori survived by his wits. Besides his camera, he hunted bear, raised and bred hunting dogs, dabbled in fox farming, ran the company store and explored the area in a boat. Part of a tight, little community he was called upon to document weddings, funerals, and the visit of dignitaries.
Thomas digs out what she can of this man’s life but situates it in the overall history of immigration and the Northwest. She documents the Japanese Exclusion Act and Anti-Asian sentiment up and down the West Coast, describes conditions for immigrant men in the growing Japanese neighborhood in Seattle where Kayamori landed and initially lived, looks at the anti-miscegenation laws preventing inter-marriage, and documents the harsh conditions of cannery life for Asian immigrants.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment reached a fever pitch up and down the West Coast, even in the small village of Yakutat. Soldiers there beat up the 64-year-old man, stealing the change from his pockets. At a town meeting called after Pearl Harbor, residents noticed Kayamori’s absence. Carrying lanterns through the snow to the house on the hill, they found him dressed in a Japanese navy uniform, dead by his own hand.
This book published under the Snowy Owl imprint by the University of Alaska Press not only tells the story of one man but gives us the history of a country in the throes of growth, industrialization, and not always hospitable to the many immigrants who helped shape its destiny.