My Life
During my college days at Waseda, in Tokyo, Japan, I belonged to an extracurricular club called Study of Design. I was tremendously influenced by one of the club members, Mr. Motoo Nakanishi, an upperclassman who went on to become one of the pioneers of corporate identity development in Japan and who made a significant impression on many young designers, myself among them. Over fifty years ago, he began a campaign to create a design department at Waseda; I was very pleased to hear his dream is finally about to come true. Mr. Mamoru Murata, the creator of the design club, is now president of the Japanese advertising agency Ad Engineer. Mr. Takuo Hirano, who was a consultant to our club, was sent to Art Center College of Design by JETRO, and eventually became a leading industrial designer in Japan. Under the influence of these three, I made the somewhat unusual decision for those days in Japan to study abroad. At Art Center College of Design, (then in Los Angeles, California, now in Pasadena) I majored in advertising photography, and was the first Japanese student to graduate from the Photography Department. The next semester my wife Audrey graduated—she was the second Japanese student to receive a diploma from the department.
One summer while I was at Art Center, Bobby Miyatake, the Technical Instructor of Photography, suggested I come work at his father’s photo studio in Little Tokyo during my vacation, so I said OK! It would be a good experience, as his father, Toyo Miyatake, was very famous. My job was to assist Archie, the first son, who was shooting weddings, and every day I went from location to location…but when I returned to the studio at the end of the day, his father, Toyo, would come over and begin talking to me about many different subjects. A very interesting, cultured and talkative individual, he went into great detail about his experiences being interned in the American concentration camps for Japanese-Americans during WWII. One of the most disturbing experiences he related was being asked by one of the guards there to step on a photograph of the Japanese Emperor to prove his loyalty to the US. Though everyone else did so, he refused, and he believed as a result he had later been denied American citizenship. He was a colleague of Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, and Edward Weston, leaders of the new, naturalistic movement in photography, who met when they came to shoot the concentration camp. I was very honored that such a well-known photographer took my wedding pictures. Mrs. Miyatake even rented my wedding clothes for me!
After graduation, my wife and I said goodbye to Los Angeles and headed for NY. On the way, we stopped at Michael and Geri Day’s house and also visited John Krawczyk—classmates and good friends from Art Center. Michael Day, who has since died, had a studio in Detroit. John and I started at the same time at Art Center, but John was already an accomplished photographer. He had been a Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy on the famous submarine Nautilus, and was part of the first expedition team that went to the North Pole. National Geographic asked him to shoot that trip for the magazine—they were beautiful pictures.
LA had been warm and peaceful, but as soon as we arrived in NY (in the middle of winter!) we both started looking for jobs. My college professors had told me that the easiest way to begin in NY was by “apprenticing as an assistant to someone famous”. So every day I made appointments with famous photographers and went on interviews.
One memory that stands out from the rest was visiting Richard Avedon’s studio. Art Center had given me a letter of introduction to his famous studio manager, and during my interview he told me, “we’ll hire you, but you’ll be the #6 assistant at a weekly salary of $65. You better show up at the studio every morning at 8:30.” I was kind of surprised, because even then regular assistants made an average of $100 per week, so I politely turned the offer down. As I was leaving, I heard the studio manager murmur under his breath “there are a lot of people who would accept this job at no pay, just to be Avedon’s assistant!”
I finally accepted a job as the assistant to Herbert Loebel, who specialized in aerial and underwater photography, photomicrography, and both medical and industrial photography. So began my life in New York. Audrey had gotten a job as a staff photographer for Osborn Charles, a major graphic design studio, and we started work while living in an empty apartment in Flushing, Queens. Herbert Loebel was an interesting man—not only was he best friends with Ernst Haas, of the famous Magnum Photos, (a photographer for whom I had the utmost respect) but he was also a survivor of Auschwitz during WWII, and had a tattoo on his arm as a result. Because of that experience he didn’t like narrow spaces, he hated the black focusing cloth used on the big format cameras of the time, he hated being crowded in the subway—I was amazed that he had become a successful photographer in NYC.
When a photo assignment came in, he often let his assistant—me—do it. On the weekends I shot many an assignment for him. In return, he sent me and my wife (who became my assistant) to dinner at expensive restaurants nearby, which we enjoyed a lot! Then on Monday morning, he’d bring the pictures we took to the client. I worked for him for about five and a half months. One of my most vivid memories was going to shoot a communications dish in the Mojave Desert. The layout called for a full moon superimposed on the dish. The engineer at the Apollo station told us that 2AM would be the best time to shoot, so we stayed out in the cold in the middle of the night to get the shot. It was a wonderful memory.
Another vivid memory I have of Herbert Loebel took place during the great snowstorm of 1969 when even Kennedy airport was closed. Herbert and his wife drove from their snowy house in Connecticut all through the night, and arrived in Manhattan the next morning. I was already at the studio, and he told me it had taken him all night to drive in, as the roads were completely closed by the blizzard. However the first thing he did on arriving was to call General Motors to praise his car, and tell them how well it had performed. I was so impressed! Anyone else would have bragged about how well they’d handled the difficult drive—not Herbert. He gave all the credit to his car. Soon, however, I began to feel my work as an assistant had pushed me to the wall, and I wasn’t enjoying it any more. I wanted to move forward.
I happened to see an ad in the NY Times that a major advertising agency was looking for a staff photographer. It was BBD&O, the third largest agency in the world at the time, so I went to see the agent, who told me that sixty-five people had already applied. I really wanted that job—it fit my plan for the future. I made the appointment, and happily for me, three days later I was notified I’d been hired. You can’t imagine how great I felt!
So began my everyday life as a staff photographer for BBD&O. My studio was on the 13th floor of the Communication Design Center on Madison Avenue—the famous street in NY where many first-class ad agencies were located. I had an assistant, a secretary, an entire color laboratory and a lab technician who reported to me. I really kicked my butt and worked very hard. In those days BBD&O billed 350 million dollars annually, and had a ton of Fortune 500 clients. I thoroughly enjoyed every day of working there, and I couldn’t wait for Monday morning each week. My job involved not only advertising photography, but also shooting sales promotions, brochures, packaging and slide presentations. The subjects ranged from food to hardware, fashion, and cosmetics. I learned a great deal, and met many different ad agency people such as art directors, copywriters, account executives, film producers and even the clients. All this turned out to be very valuable for my future plans of opening my own studio. I especially learned a lot from the creative art direction of Lou Figliola, who passed away in May 2012. I also worked with the art directors Ted Gatter, Rudi Valentini, Randy Stover, and Bob O’Conell, and the copywriters Bob Murphy, and Aubrey Baratz.
Back then, Campbell’s had just developed a new line of soup called Chunky Soup. I took photos for all six of the new can labels. It was very precise work—there was a certain ratio of carrots, meat and potatoes that had to be shown in each spoonful, and at the shoot the account executive was present as well as the art director and the lawyers who had to approve and clear each shot. I have great memories of that job at BBD&O, and I used to get a good feeling whenever I was in the supermarket—for many years I saw my soup labels on the cans, and they continued using my photos on the labels of Hormel Roast Beef and Corned Beef hash until close to 2000—almost 30 years! My kids were all impressed with that.
When Burger King opened its first chain store in suburban Boston, I took the promotional pictures for them. We hired 100 extras and began to shoot after they closed the store, starting at 1 AM and finishing up at 6 in the morning. Though Burger King is now one of the biggest fast food chains, back then there were only a few stores.
During this period I did an interesting job for GE—they were producing a series of vocational booklets that introduced many different careers for graduating high school seniors, and I shot many on-the-job pictures of various industries. I had to go to the World Trade Center to shoot the architects, the construction foreman, the electricians, and the plumbers. I shot pictures from the top floors while they were still only open beams, and while I was shooting, the entire structure was moving! I really admired the workers—members of the Mohawk Indian tribe–who were able to work easily at those great heights. Ever since that first time photographing the beautiful WTC buildings, whenever I had the chance, I’d shoot them again from different angles. I’ve never felt such anger and sadness as I did after September 11, 2001, and haven’t been able to go near the location since then.
Right after I started at BBD&O, my younger brother, Kageaki, who graduated from the Tokyo Merchant Marine Academy and was at that time the second officer at K Line, sailed to NY and docked at Brooklyn Harbor in a ship called Kunikawa Maru. He stayed overnight at our apartment and the next day we went to see him off at the pier. I was very impressed that my brother had maneuvered such a huge ship without mishap, and I was so proud of him it brought tears to my eyes. Every time he came to visit the East Coast he brought lots of souvenirs from Japan, and we always took our kids to visit the ship, with a huge fresh ham for him and the crew—what a joy for my family to see him! He retired from navigation with the rank of Captain, and now he’s the harbor captain at the port of Yokohama.
My family in Japan also included my elder sisters Mami and Keri. While I was still at BBD&O, Mami, (who is now deceased) moved to Koki publishing after many years at Gakken, a very prestigious Japanese educational publishing company, where she introduced me to Mr. Takehito Sadamura, and Mr. Masaaki Nakajo. They each gave me some very interesting projects to shoot as a freelancer, such as the cover for the album “Travel in Pops/Popular Songs and Travel in the United States”. They also asked me to prepare a few hundred photos for the English and American Edition of the Gakken Visual Area Encyclopedia. This included shots of cultural institutions, architecture, famous locations, family life, etc. Whenever I go to Japan, I make a point of seeing those two individuals and try to spend an evening with them. Mr. Sadamura is now very active in the fields of computer graphics and audio-visual communications, including motion pictures. Mr. Nakajo moved to Kumon publishing where he was very successful, eventually becoming president of the company. He is now consulting with a subsidiary of Kumon, in the area of education, for which he has traveled all over the world, although he’s curbed his travels in recent years. He was honored by the Vatican for his contributions in the field of children’s ukiyoe, and was photographed with the Pope. Both Mr. Sadamura and Mr. Nakajo are men of great vision, and I pay them a lot of respect.
A few years ago, my elder sister Keri lost her beloved husband of many years through a tragic accident, and for the past few years, she’s started traveling abroad in order to cope with her sadness and loneliness. Keri attended both our daughters’ weddings, and also came to Germany for the opening of my show in Sulzbach-Rosenberg. I really appreciate her.
After I’d been at BBD&O two years, my first assistant left, and I had to hire another one. I soon found Martha Pearson, who had a very interesting background. She spoke Russian fluently, plus a little Japanese, and showed a wonderful sense of humor. She has traveled to Japan, of course, and many countries in Europe, and is knowledgeable about a lot of subjects. She now lives in Monterey, near San Francisco, and is known as Martha Casanave. She’s very busy, publishing books, teaching photography, and is an active, working artist/photographer.
I met Nancy Robinson, Martha’s best friend, when she accompanied Martha to the interview with me. Nancy is also a very interesting, extremely intelligent person and is the assistant to I.M. Pei, the famous architect. Many years later, when I was creating my book, Odyssey, I was looking for someone to contribute to the text, and Nancy introduced me to Dr. Janet Adams Strong, who is a professor of Architecture and Medieval Architectural History. She was chosen as the official biographer of the I.M. Pei firm, and her book on the subject was published in 2008, for which I attended the publishing party. While in the middle of her busy schedule preparing that manuscript, she contributed some wonderful text for my book. Some years ago, Janet Adams Strong also made time to come with her family to the opening of my first photography show in Germany. Everything started with Martha, my ex-assistant!
While I was still at BBD&O, my mentor from my Waseda days, Mr. Motoo Nakanishi, often came to visit my studio along with his assistants. I introduced Mr. Nakanishi to Ray Yoshimura, another Art Center graduate, who was the designer at Lippincott Margolis specializing in corporate identity and package design. I’m very proud that after my introduction, the two collaborated on so many beautiful designs for worldwide products, especially for Japanese accounts. At that time, Mr. Nakanishi was in the process of writing a book called DECOMAS (Design Coordination as a Management Strategy), published by Sanseido, about corporate identity, and as he was researching NY at that time, he used to stop by my office every day. Also during that period Noboru Watanabe (whose pen name in Japan is Anzai Mizumaru) worked for New York Dentsu, and he frequently came by with his wife, Masumi Kishida, to watch me work.
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After 6 years at BBD&O, I made the momentous move of opening the Yamaoka Studio with Audrey on 31st Street, in Manhattan, and she and I worked hard every day. My biggest challenge was to get clients. I still clearly remember the day that I was shooting a cover for Audio Video magazine, a trade publication which was a division of Dempa Shimbun of Japan, and met Mike Ueda, the Editor in Chief. He’s now a very successful music industry producer in Japan. Connected with my work for the magazine, I met Mr. Kawamura, the technical salesman from Toppan Printing, from whom I learned a lot about printing. During a 6-year period I shot over 72 covers for Audio Video magazine without missing a month! In later years I was often accompanied by Jerry Rotondi, a former art director who was acting as my assistant. Many times he and I came up with the idea for the cover, and I shot it. I, myself, am amazed by how hard I worked!
Through Mike Ueda, I met many people in the home electronics industry. Meeting his good friend Mr. Yuki Sato, President and CEO of Cores Corporation, which did market research in Tokyo, London and NY, was one of my most memorable encounters. Mr. Sato gave me some good advice for my future direction. His former assistant Alex Natiku, who was then the president of Cores, NY, has since become a very close family friend. Alex now owns an independent company called Smart Strategies, and keeps very busy traveling back and forth between NY, California and Japan doing industry studies for clients. Back then I also met Mr. Toby Toyama, the advertising manager for Panasonic, Ken Kai, the dynamic president of Pioneer, Sam Kusumoto, president of Minolta, Bill Kasuga, VP for Kenwood, Sam Tokuno, VP of Ricoh and many others.
Mr. Sato also introduced me to Mr. Kikuro Takagi, a special correspondent in NY for Yomiuri Shimbun, one of the three major newspapers in Japan. Before coming to NY he had been in the Middle East for many years. He was very knowledgeable about affairs there, and published a book about it. One night at Yodo, our favorite hangout, he had just arrived back in NY from Tripoli, and announced he had met with, and interviewed Qaddafi! On various occasions we exchanged ideas for stories, and when I was asked by Carlos Foster, of Urban Cowboys, and a pioneer of the black rodeo, to bring an American Rodeo to Asia and Russia, Mr. Takagi came with me to Florida to cover the rodeo, and wrote a long article for Yomiuri. Many years later, when I lost my son and was at rock bottom, Mr. Takagi was back in Japan, but he contacted the NY office of Yomiuri, who published a special article about my son. He had retired by the time I had my one-man show in the Ginza, but again, he made arrangements for publicity for me. He now teaches at Waseda, and is one of the most respected people I met in NY.
Another friend from this period was Masaki Tachikawa, an internationally known journalist with an interesting background—in 1974 he was arrested in South Korea as a political prisoner and was sentenced by a Korean military court to 20 years in prison, a sensational story at the time. I was asked to accompany him to shoot for the Japanese weekly magazine Friday, Japan’s most notorious muckraking publication, and I photographed Misuzu Misato, a very well-known anchorwoman in Japan who had taken some time off to attend graduate school at Princeton. With Mr. Tachikawa, I also shot Tony Kinoshita, who was known in the restaurant business back then as the second Rocky Aoki, the founder of Benihana. We took photos of him at his disco in Atlanta, the largest disco in the world in those days, surrounded by a ton of beautiful women.
Kiyoshi Kanai, who worked for Lou Dorfsman of CBS fame, was another interesting person I met. He opened his own design office in midtown Manhattan, and asked me to shoot for Citibank. Every time Citibank opened a new branch office in the NY area, I used to shoot atmospheric black and white shots for their brochures.
For several years in a row I photographed in the West Indies, Bahamas, and Puerto Rico for calendars that were distributed worldwide by Matsushita National Brands. I was shooting top models from NY in these beautiful locations—what a fun assignment! It came to me through Mr. Yoh Jinno, of Dai Nippon printing company, NY. who also hired me to shoot a calendar about NY for Takasago Perfumery, which every year received an award of excellence from the printing industry. During that shoot, I was attacked on the Brooklyn Bridge by five thugs, who I fought off. I did my best for this assignment, nevertheless, and I received a Cleo award in 1983 for my calendar. In those days I shot all over Manhattan with my “assistant” Jerry Rotondi. an unusual and interesting character. He had been an art director at Doyle Dane Bernbach, a very well known and creative ad agency, and later moved over to DeGarmo, where I met him. Though he had done wonderful advertising for for both agencies, one day he got fed up and decided to quit the agency business, and he soon started a new career—working with me!
In 1980 the famous treasure hunter, Mel Fisher, (now deceased) had discovered a sunken Spanish ship, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, wrecked off the Florida Coast in 1622, and had recovered a lot of treasure, which led to a lot of controversy. When the Queens Museum mounted an exhibition of this wealth, sponsored by Chase Manhattan Bank and curated by Ms. Janet Schneider, I took the advertising pictures for Wells, Rich, Green, the ad agency. The TDI poster was seen all over NY subways, buses and stations—a real thrill for a photographer. We shot a knight dressed in 17th century costume, holding a poison cup, which although crushed in the wreck, had been cleaned and restored. This solid gold cup, however, was really an anti-poison vessel with a special device to hold a bezoar stone, which was believed to be able to neutralize poison. The cup is now on permanent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I recently became re-acquainted with Ms. Schneider while writing my memoirs.
In the summer of 1982, there were huge anti-nuke rallies and demonstrations in NY. Shufu no Tomo, a publisher of women’s magazines, asked me to cover Ms. Jakucho Setouchi, one of Japan’s most popular writers who was in NY to cover the rallies, and who eventually became a monk! I had a great time shooting all over NY with Jakucho and the editor, plus Jakucho’s best friend, Takako Ohta, the proprietress of Pusan, a very famous bar in Tokyo, and Mr. Tadao Fujimatsu of Japan Airlines, I clearly recall one memorable evening paying a visit to a well-known philosopher, Shusaku Aragawa, and his wife, Madeline H. Gins. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but led by Ms. Setouchi, we all wound up dancing awa odori, a well known traditional dance from the Tokushima area in Shikoku, a dance as famous in Japan as the carnival is in Rio. Ever since, when I go back to Japan, I’ve tried to visit Pusan.
Speaking of fond memories, I have to mention Beverly Cox, a home economist who studied at the Cordon Blue in Paris, and who I worked with on both her French cookbook and her exercise book. She was from Cheyenne, Wyoming, where her family owns an 80,000-acre spread—the Eagle Rock Ranch. During one of the big tourist booms, the family asked me to shoot the ranch for promotion purposes to invite hunters and vacationers to come out west to visit. Another of my fondest memories was my relationship with the Book-of-the Month Club. I worked with them for almost 8 years, shooting many different things with Ms. Janet Doyle, the creative director. She later became my partner, as both an art director and in other kinds of businesses, which continues to this day. Also at Book-of-the-Month Club I met Clare Vermont, Michael Moroney, Carmile Zaino and James Du, who have all helped me in many different ways over the years.
I had another long-term relationship with the textile company Greenwood Mills, for which I used to shoot fashion ads for the NY Times magazine. Their ad agency was DeGarmo, where my good friend Rudi Valentini was the art director and another good friend, Chris Gibbs was the account executive. Rudi was also an ex-BBD&Oer, and I worked with him for over 10 years on many different accounts. Today, Rudi teaches graphic design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Later, I worked with Chris on the Pitney-Bowes campaign, with Jerry Rotondi as the art director. Chris and I went to North Carolina to shoot a testimonial ad for the company. Poor Chris had a cast on his arm, because he’d been in a bar fight a few evenings before! I’ll never forget the sight of Chris challenging some good ol’ Southern boys to a game of pool with that cast on his arm–and he beat them! I thought for sure I’d get dragged into a fight…I felt a little uncomfortable, as Mr. DeGarmo’s daughter, Joan, used to be my assistant at BBD&O.
• • •
By that point in the mid 80s, I had spent over 6 years at BBD&O, and had been running my own studio for 10 years. I had 3 children who were rapidly growing and I decided to expand my work to include marketing and research as well as advertising and product development.
So in 1985, on the 25th anniversary of the Tokyo/New York sister cities program, I worked with the NY Mayor’s office under Mayor Koch, and along with Bob Malmad, a copywriter, created and became Executive Producer of a program called “The Silver Bridge”. Part of my job was to line up Japanese sponsors, and we raised over 1 million dollars. As part of the program, we created a parade on 5th Avenue celebrating Bon Odori, arranged for Grand Sumo wrestling at Madison Square Garden and a Kabuki performance at Lincoln Center and also published an advertising supplement to the New York Sunday Times magazine. I believe I made a big contribution in helping to right the unfavorable trade balance for the US at the time, and in adding to an understanding of Japanese culture. For all their help, I owe special thanks to Shin Soejima of Toppan Printing Company and Mr. Shinichiro Tora (since deceased) of Popular Photography magazine.
Another one of my fondest memories is of Mr. Osami Suzuki of Toshiba who developed the unique TOSBAX/Sonic Jacket. I helped design and produce this product, along with Rudy Valentini’s wife, Didi, who drafted the pattern. The jacket had eight pockets, containing a CD player, radio/cassette player, four speakers, a power amplifier and a battery pack. The units were all connected within the jacket and weren’t visible on the outside, so people couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. The person wearing the jacket could feel the sound throughout their body—great for outdoor activities. The jacket was manufactured in Hong Kong, and since I was also responsible for quality control, that year I had to go to Hong Kong eight times! The production was extremely detailed, and required multiple on-the-spot checks. Also at Toshiba, I met Osami Suzuki’s superior, Mr. Kanazawa, who happened to be a bridge Grandmaster in Manhattan. We created a multimedia show for him for a Toshiba sales convention that was held in Dallas—we stayed late many nights working on the show over a period of several months.
In the mid ‘eighties I partnered with Glenn Hersch, who had been an account executive for many years at Doyle, Dane, Bernbach. Alpine Luxman, headquartered in L.A., was a company that manufactured high quality home and car stereo systems, and we were hired as their PR agency. The president of the company, Tom Ohki, was a real veteran in the industry. Back then, the digital boom had just begun, and tubes were out—but I couldn’t tell any difference in the sound, it was so good! Glenn and I took the editors of all the big electronics industry magazines on a tour of Alpine-Luxman’s production facilities in Japan. I was amazed to see that the production line was manned by robots that actually roamed all over the factory.
We also worked on several brochures and catalogs for the parts division of Alfa Romeo, and had lots of fun. We wound up going on a location shoot to sunny California—but we also had to shoot for them on location on the frozen Hudson River! CES, the famous Consumer Electronics Show, used to be held twice a year in Las Vegas and Chicago. Vendors from all over the world came to present their new products—it was a huge event. I used to attend every year, and I would see many of my clients. Now, they have cut back to holding the show only once a year, and I no longer attend.
One of my most impressive clients at the time was a store called King Fook, a prestigious jeweler from Hong Kong, who opened a store in one of the poshest locations on Fifth Avenue. Miss Julia Wang was the advertising manager, and every week for over a year and a half, I took black and white advertising photos for placement in the NY Times and color shots for catalogs and seasonal brochures. I shot the most expensive jewelry and I learned a lot about it in the process.
Another good memory is of meeting Shigetaka Kobayashi of International Telecom Japan which later became Nippon Telecom, and is now closed. I was introduced to Mr. Kobayashi by Mr. Takahiko Maki of MCI, who was aggressively looking to sign up Japanese companies as users. One of the big projects my partner Janet Doyle and I created for ITJ was a trade show booth. Every year trade shows were held in LA, Atlanta, and New Orleans where all the international telecom companies gathered, and our business challenge was to position ITJ as a world-class telecom company. It was a very, very big responsibility. Working with ITJ, I also met and became friends with Mr. Kobayashi’s assistant, Leslie Silver, whose ability to speak Japanese made her a huge asset to the company. She assisted him on many projects that would have been too big for him to handle alone. We still stay in touch, and she has become one of the biggest collectors of my fine-art photography. Her house displays many of my photos! I also did business with NTT, another big Japanese telecom company, who were looking to expand into technology transfer and international procurement. We created a brochure for them to help promote this campaign.
Mr. Kaga of ATT was another person I met in the telecommunications business, and we worked together when Book-of-the Month Club was exploring the possibility of doing business in Japan. I also met Ted Otsuka of IDC, a competitor of ITJ, Mr. Kunimoto of Telecomet, and a wonderful golfer, Mr. Namba of KDD. I must also mention Dr. Kuroda, with whom I never did business, but who was a great occasional drinking companion. One day at the office he suffered a subarachnoid hemmorage and died at a young age—a very sad memory for me.
Again, I worked with Janet Doyle as a designer and Bob Malmad as a copywriter to create a corporate capabilities brochure for Itochu, one of Japan’s largest general trading companies. The brochure opened by depicting the history of Itochu as a “Yankee Trader” in the U.S. It was full of color photography and required the highest quality printing. Itochu asked us to use their printer, which meant we had to make many trips to Chicago in the middle of a freezing cold winter for press OKs. As a result of that inconvenience, we didn’t give an inch to the printer, but we wound up finally being satisfied with the end result.
Besides this interesting work, I tried to bring US and Japanese companies together to exchange either products or technologies. Amazon.com was in its infancy at the time, but Book-of-the-Month Club wanted to introduce itself to the Japanese market for English language books, and we started market research to do that. We did a test mailing to Japan, which had a tremendous response. I was very pleased with the result, and the book club then created a much larger mailing. BOMC eventually introduced the book club concept to other Asian and European markets. I also suggested that BOMC contribute in some way to earthquake-damaged Kobe, and as a result I became the bridge for their contribution of 1000 volumes to the municipal public library in Kobe.
After that, Kathy Gallagher at National Geographic Magazine asked me to help market the English language version of the magazine to Japan, although the Japanese version was already available there. I did research and created a direct mail piece for them, but unfortunately, the result was not as good as BOMC’s.
I didn’t deal only with publishing, telecommunications and cultural events, however. Acme Gears, a company in NJ that produces high-speed precision gears, wanted to extend their business to Japan and China. I worked with the president, Joe Gelles, on the presentation and we visited various areas of Japan as well as some cities in China—Shanghai, Nanjing, and Beijing. It was a fun trip. In Japan, I asked Yuki Suzuki and Shuji Itami who worked for the general trading company, Shinyei, in Kobe, to help. I had met them both when they worked in the NY office of Shinyei. Now, Mr. Suzuki in Kobe, and Mr. Itami in Nagoya each have their own businesses, and I try to visit these precious friends to go out drinking whenever I visit Japan.
Travel led to other opportunities too. When my children were still babies, every year in spring or summer, I visited my wife Audrey’s hometown, Kainan-shi, Wakayama, and Tokyo where my sisters lived, so that my children would learn about their roots. Also, they loved to see Audrey’s’ grandparents and cousins and had a great time wherever they went. Even though Audrey’s grandparents helped us, the cost for five people to travel to Japan was a tremendous expense, so we were always looking for the cheapest flights.
Then, we came across a company called Japan Budget Travel! Nowadays it’s not hard to find cheap tickets to Japan, but back then JBT gave us an unbelievably low price, and they incurred a lot of bad feeling from other travel agencies in NY. The president of this revolutionary company that initiated the price wars was George Kay, who has since become a great friend. Several times he invited me as a Japanese businessman living in New York to go on golf tours—one of the most memorable was a jaunt to Ireland on Aer Lingus, under the auspices of the Irish Tourist Board and Aer Lingus. I also went on a similar tour of London with George—both fun trips.
Several years later, through connections that Janet Doyle had with an advertising agency who handled TAP and the Portuguese Tourist Office, I organized a golf trip to the Azores and Estoril, Portugal. I brought a group of Japanese business people, and it was one of the most memorable and eye-opening trips of my life. It made a tremendous impact on me as a photographer and someone interested in history—every day there was something I’d never experienced before—the delicious food, the natural phenomena, the beauty of the golf courses, the incredible surroundings. So, several years after the first trip, we organized another, to repeat the experience for a different group of people. Everyone was thrilled with the trip, and many are still talking about it.
My life changes dramatically…
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I’d been working very hard, but one day, everything went totally wrong when I lost my beloved son in a tragic accident. He had been a student at Yale University, studying animal science, with a focus on ornithology. With him gone, I felt as if everything I was doing was a total waste, and I spent months in a deep depression. The year before I’d had a heart attack and triple bypass surgery, and wasn’t very strong physically. On top of that, two years earlier I’d also lost my sister, Mami. I hated everything and wanted to do nothing. But, suddenly one day something hit me, and I realized that I was sitting in front of all these pictures—shots of my family, and especially pictures of Kenneth, and also many other pictures I had taken. I started going through all my files, looking at the shots of my son and family along with all the pictures I had shot for myself over the years.
These images were unlike anything I had shot as a commercial photographer, a businessman, or an entrepreneur. They had nothing to do with my clients or business—they were not for money. They were images of my own world, without any direction from outside. For many years I had been carrying a Nikon and a few lenses, and a Luna Pro wherever I went in the world, shooting my own subjects. These pictures were very natural, with no gimmicks, really just everyday life and places, my eye behind the camera. They were my own themes, developed over many years—all the different ways I had been challenging myself, shots of everyday incidents and variations—sometimes only one shot I got at a lucky moment! This was my journey as a photographer. It was my own work, images of times that will never come back—a crystallization of light and object, which summed up my impressions of a serene world.
Over the years, I had always intended to have one-man photography shows of my work, and also somehow to publish a book. But tragically, these things finally happened as a result of my son’s death—I wanted to create a memorial to him. So I went to work. I had one-man shows in New York, Tokyo, Kyoto and Germany, and at the same time, published my book, Odyssey.
My first show in NY, in Soho, took place at the Cast Iron Gallery. Mitsui Trading Company helped me a lot at the time, and I owe them great thanks; my eldest daughter, Natasha, worked there before she took a position with ISG, the International Steel Group in Cleveland, Ohio. Mr. Masayoshi Furuhata, the president of Mitsui, was especially helpful in establishing the scholarship for the Kenneth Kagetaka Yamaoka Memorial Fund, and also contributed a wonderful essay for my book. He helped us both publicly and privately. My first show in Japan was held in the Ginza in Tokyo, at the Dentsu Kosan Gallery. For this, I owe thanks to Shuzo Tanaka, who at the time was a well-known copywriter at Dentsu. Shuzo has been my best friend since we were together at the Waseda Club for the Study of Design. He rose up through management at Dentsu, and is now retired and has become an accomplished marathon runner, attending events worldwide. In addition to Shuzo, I owe a lot to my good friends Ken Nakagawa (architect at Takenake) Tohru Ono (architect at Taisei) and Keiji Aoki (architect at Fujita).
I decided to use my photography to create a book, Odyssey, to honor my son. All the photos from my shows in Soho and Tokyo had already been scanned by James Du, who at the time worked for Book-of-the-Month Club, and I added a few more. Janet Doyle took care of the design, editing and publishing details, and I really appreciate everything she did. I also asked a few people to contribute essays about my work for the book. Samuel Antupit, one of the most respected graphic designers in NY, made a huge contribution by writing the wonderful introduction. I was very sad to learn of his death a few years later, but I feel very honored that someone of his caliber really appreciated and understood my work—perhaps the best of anyone I ever knew. I was so sorry he couldn’t have seen my later shows and I regret I can now never show him my new work.
My next shows took place in Germany, and we got a great deal of help from our friend Christl Pelikan, who is married to the mayor of Sulzbach-Rosenberg, Gerd Geismann. We were invited to their wedding ten years ago, which took place during the Alstadtfest, a medieval festival held every summer. It was just like a fairy tale—the whole city celebrated, and it was a wonderful wedding. I met a lot of terrific people on this trip, too. I’d like to specially mention Christine Peterson and her mother, Madeline. I admire Christine very much for her courage and fighting spirit, and I’m grateful for her help in translating captions for my pictures into German. I also became good friends with Michael Weigand, Ramona Bechtos and Chris and Corrie Perez—all as a result of Christl’s wedding!
In Germany, the Sparkasse bank and the local news media gave me and my book a lot of publicity, and the bank eventually became my sponsor for many of the 10 exhibitions I had there. I had one-man shows in Sulzbach-Rosenberg, Schwandorf, Neumarkt, Weiden, Neumarkt, Wurz, Amberg and Nuremberg in the beautiful historical area of Bavaria. I was very fortunate to be able to visit this beautiful area, where I got the opportunity to shoot villages, the countryside and medieval castles. I really appreciate the warm hearts of the German people, and owe special thanks to Mr. Schlenk, past president of the Sparkasse Bank in Sulzbach-Rosenberg, Mr. Aures, former coordinator of events of the Sparkasse Bank, Mr. Stoeckle past president of the Sparkasse Bank in Neumarkt, and his assistant, Mr. Meier. I also owe special thanks to Mr. Loesch, of the Stad-Sulzbach-Rosenberg newspaper. Many of the gentlemen mentioned above are now retired. Of the ten shows in Germany, many were sponsored by the Sparkasse, but the past four were sponsored by corporate and governmental agencies—among them a hospital and city governments.
I included many pictures with a Bavarian medieval feeling in my one-man show in Kyoto, which took place during the beautiful cherry blossom season in April 2005. The Art Life Mitsuhashi Gallery, located near the Ginkakuji in Kyoto, is owned by my good friend Shinichi Mitsuhashi, assisted by his wonderful wife, Tamako. I met him at Art Center when he was sent there by Mitsubishi to study automotive design. Here I must also mention his sister, Setsuko Mitsuhashi, a genius painter, who died young from an incurable disease. I first saw her work after Mr. Mitsuhashi came to Tokyo for my first show. When I delivered the picture he had purchased to him in Kyoto, I had the opportunity to see her paintings, and was very touched by her heroic efforts to fight her disease on behalf of her family, especially her two young children. I was lucky to acquire a book of her collected works, edited by the famous Takeshi Umehara. I still open this book occasionally, and I tell myself each time I should work harder—compared to an artist like that, I’m not doing enough.
The show in Kyoto turned out to be very successful, and it took place thanks to the efforts and kindness of Dr. Susumu Fujita, to whom I’m very grateful for helping make all the arrangements. Dr. Fujita is my brother-in-law Isao’s respected classmate from military school, who now practices gynecology in a hospital in Kyoto. When I visited Kyoto on a previous trip to Japan, he arranged for me to photograph a bamboo forest there. Ohara and Kyoto were areas I’d always wanted to shoot, and I included these pictures in the show. Dr. Fujita was one of my best supporters, buying many of my pictures. I wish him the best of health for a long time to come. Dr. Ikuta, on staff at Dr. Fujita’s hospital, was very involved with an amateur photographic society in the Kansai area and introduced my work to them—every day many of the members came to the show, and it was a pleasure to meet them all.
During the show I was at the gallery from morning to night, and met so many people. Friends came from all over Japan, and even from the U.S. and Taiwan, and gave me wonderful feedback on my work. Here I have to mention Mr. Noritsuna Watanabe, who came all the way from Taiwan for the opening. He had been a young designer at Toyota who was sent to Art Center for advanced design training while I was studying there. On the weekends we used to go to watch the Times Grand Prix at Riverside, the Stardust Grand Prix at Las Vegas, and many other local races. At one of those events, I shot the Toyota 2000GT, the first Japanese racing car to compete on the US racing circuit, and I was told it was also used for the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. It carried license plate # TNT-007. What a car! That shot was the first picture I ever sold in the US. Now Mr. Watanabe has retired and is teaching automotive design at a university in Taiwan. I also have to mention his daughter, Junko, who completed a masters degree at Manhattan School of Music at Columbia University. A soprano, she has already has several concerts in NY, and I am completely astonished by her voice.
As a result of the show in Kyoto I met one of Mr. Mitsuhashi’s good friends, Tadashi Shimizu, who is a producer and interviewer for Kyoto Channel TV, and who along with Miss Nakajima, interviewed me live for the cultural section of the TV program. He’s the so-called “don” of the cultural and art world in Kyoto, and he’s now advising me on my second book, Encounters. I also met Mr. Uesaksa of Tachikichi, head designer and creative director of this world famous ceramic company. He came to see my show and liked my work, and we’ve since begun working together, using my photography in promotional pieces for Tachikichi.
My good golf buddy, Miyoko Nagata, who now lives in Hagi, Yamaguchi, had taken me to photograph Tokoji and Rurikoji on one of my previous trips back to Japan. These pictures were included in the exhibition, and she, too, came to see the show. While I was preparing everything in New York, I met Hiro and Madoka Ishibashi. It so happened that Madoka’s father is a commercial photographer, and Madoka e-mailed news of my show to the Japan Photographers Association. As a result many professional photographers from the Kansai area also attended my show, among them Mr. Higashiide, photographer of the Miho Museum by I.M. Pei, Ms. Yoko Azuma, the curator of the museum, Professor Akiko Murakata, of Kyoto University, Shuzo’s high school classmate, and many others.
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While I was working hard to establish myself as a fine art photographer and traveling, family life was undergoing changes as well. Both my daughters had graduated from Johns Hopkins University. After graduation, my younger daughter, Tiffany, worked in New York as a highly successful investment banker and later moved to Chicago. In 2003 she married Eddie Zimmerman, who now works as an architect for Goettsch Partners in Chicago, after previously working for I.M. Pei Partners in New York. My many trips on behalf of their wedding brought me to Chicago often. I fell in love with downtown Chicago, where I took a lot of pictures in every season—these were featured images in many of the shows.
My older daughter Natasha got married in Cleveland in 2004 to Russell Ettinger, a pilot with Delta Airlines. In 2003, she joined the International Steel Group, in Cleveland Ohio, and I was given the project of photographing four steel mills for ISG for advertising and publicity. I challenged myself, and luckily, completed this tough assignment successfully. Some of these interesting shots may even wind up in my next book. Her company was eventually acquired by Mittal Steel, and she subsequently left. Natasha then decided to go back to school to complete her MBA at Duke University, Fuqua School of Business. Nowadays, she, too, works for Delta Airlines, as General Manager, Distribution Strategy. Thanks to Natasha, my wife and I are able to travel anywhere on the world that Delta flies to, on vacation, for which I’m very grateful.
In August 2006, the Sulzbach-Rosenberg International Music Festival was held in Germany, chaired by our friend Mrs. Christl Geismann. In conjunction with the performances by world-class cellist Misha Quint, and his students and faculty, I had a one-man show at the festival, which was attended by many dignitaries from the 7th Army base nearby in Grafenwoerh, including Brigadier General David Perkins and his wife. Misha has since established the festival as a yearly occurrence in Sulzbach-Rosenberg, and as a result of that past joint artistic event, we became good friends. I’m honored to know such a talented musician, and his accompanist, Svetlana Gorokovich, and I was thrilled when they both performed for me at a party on my 70th birthday! Following the festival, I also had an exhibition at the Sparkasse bank in Nuestadt, for which I owe great thanks to Mr. Pflaum and Mr. Hallman. Plus, I took pictures for another show that was scheduled in Weiden at the Sparkasse—it was a very busy summer!
Summer 2007 was even busier! I had three shows in Germany—the first took place at the end of June, in Neumarkt, once again at the Sparkasse, through the kind arrangements of Mr. Meier, who helped with my first show there three years earlier. The second took place in July, in Amberg, a beautful city in Bavaria, at City Hall. I was very impressed by the wonderful exhibition space, and the opening party was attended by many dignitatries including the Ambassador. The third took place also in July in Wurz, at the gallery owned by Dr. Rita Keilhorn, in conjunction with a famous music festival, the Werzer Sommerkonzerte. Then, in February 2008, I had a wonderful show at the Sparkasse in Weiden, along with Christl, who exhibited her jewelry there at the same time.
During one of Christl’s visits to New York, she brought my new poster, “Rooftops of Bavaria”, to the German Consulate, and they became very interested in my work. As a result, I had a show at German House, the German Consulate, in New York in October 2007, the opening of which was attended by almost 200 people and was a great success. Through another good friend, I was also introduced to the UN, where I had planned an exhibition for August of 2008, but due to the mishandling by an official in charge of events there, I was unable to secure the necessary sponsorship in the time frame. But I’m still planning to pursue it for the future.
I had always wanted to visit Moscow. My mother had been a translator at the end of WWII in China for the Russian military and had encouraged me as a small boy to someday fulfill her dream to see Russia—I finally had the chance in the late winter of 2009. I accompanied my good friend Irina Zinovieva, who works at the United Nations in New York, when she went back for a visit, and I was able to accomplish my dream of shooting a Russian winter. I really enjoyed the wonderful Russian hospitality, especially from Irina’s many friends. Someday I hope to be able to have a show of my work in Moscow—on that trip, I laid the groundwork with an organizer there. That’s my next goal!
And, finally, I was able to realize at least one of my long-term goals—to have a show of my work in Nuremberg! In the spring of 2011, I was invited to exhibit at the beautiful, architect-designed offices of the law firm Kolb, Doebler, Kuespert, & Dr. Moeschel, Hemanns, which periodically sponsors art exhibitions. They told me later it was one of the best openings they’d ever had. 2010 had seen a 3-day preview exhibition of my work in at the New Art Center in New York, and I also had a month-long one-man show there in 2011, showcasing my work in a new, larger format. This had been preceded by a one-man exhibition at the Atlantic Gallery, also in New York, where I will have another show in 2013, in their brand new location.
I’m also continuing to work on my second book, Encounters. I‘ve asked my old friend Anzai Mizumaru, the famous Japanese illustrator, to create the introduction, and I plan to have the book produced in three languages—English, Japanese, and German.
All these encounters—not only with the subjects I photographed, but also with the amazing people I have met along the way, have helped me arrive at where I am today. I appreciate them, one and all!
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Memories….are a story of hope, despair, turning point and aspiration.
South Salem, NY
Michael K. Yamaoka