“Judging a Print” by Ella McBride.
“Judging a Print” by Ella McBride.

What is it about an old photograph that stirs the imagination? In a single image, the distilled memories of the past can transport us to a time long forgotten. Currently on exhibit at the Henry Art Gallery, “Shadows of a Fleeting World: Pictorial Photography and the Seattle Camera Club” takes us to early 20th century Seattle in a time when photography was internationally developing as a respected art form.

Founded in 1924 by Japanese immigrants in the Pacific Northwest, The Seattle Camera Club (SCC) sponsored exhibitions and published a monthly journal, Notan, in which both amateur and professional photographers could share their work. The SCC also recruited non-Japanese members and a number of women, providing an environment that fostered creativity and encouraged the individual development of each photographer.

In an age of digital photography, it is easy to forget that these photos were taken on film and developed in a darkroom. The subtle, monochrome images were carefully crafted each step of the way, in a process that is a dying art in itself. Due to the effort involved in every single photograph, there is a certain reverence deserved for the methods of the time.

In “Judging a Print”, by Ella McBride, we get a glance into a darkroom where images slowly emerged in the hands of these artists. One man examines a newly developed photograph, while another leans in for a look. The viewer can feel the excitement of seeing a photograph come to completion.

“Sunlight in the Morning” by Kusutora Matsuki.
“Sunlight in the Morning” by Kusutora Matsuki.

Featured prominently in this exhibition is the work of SCC member Dr. Kyo Koike who said, “I think pictorial photography should not be an imitation of paintings, but it should contain a feeling similar to that of poems.” He expressed the sentiment of wanting to combine the western invention of photography with Japanese artistic traditions. A distinctly Japanese aesthetic is apparent in the many landscape photographs featured, as well as in the photos depicting flowers or other elements of nature.

One particularly stunning photograph by Kusutora Matsuki, entitled “Sunlight in the Morning”, features a lone figure carrying a bucket through an alleyway in old Seattle with the morning light streaming down and casting a shadow behind him. The brick buildings with their old fire escapes evoke a romanticized feeling of an idealized past, long since replaced by our modern world.

To anyone interested in appreciating or taking pictures, “Shadows of a Fleeting World” provides a look at the beginnings of photography as a popular art form. It is through these beautiful images that we are able to view the Seattle of long ago through the eyes of those who lived it.

 

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