Even with my white cotton gloves on, as required by the NT Archives to view original documents, I feel my heart pounding with magical force when I sense that I may be touching original photographs printed by Yasukichi Murakami, the man who has been the centre of my creative work for the last 26 months.
I had taken my first step to involve myself in this project the day after the Great Tohoku Earthquake in Japan (11.03.11), when I met Dr Lorna Kaino at the Astor Theatre in Perth. Standing with a glass of wine in a noisy foyer after a piano concert by Les Ferers, I briefly chatted with her about collaborating on a project about historical Japanese photographers in Australia; thus I began my journey; that of being a contemporary Japanese born photographer working in Australia in search of Yasukichi Murakami’s life and work. Since then, the creative force has gently unfolded, step by step, from A to B, B to C, C to D, and I recently found myself yet again sifting through thousands of photographs with the help of one very dedicated and experienced archivist, librarian, and for me, a great teacher, Françoise Barr at the NT Archives. Her knowledge of research and archiving fills the gap of my lack, and her warmth of character gives me the strength to carry out this inconspicuous, and potentially, a lonely fruitless task.
I am looking for Murakami’s photographs which disappeared from official Australian history. Many of his photographs disappeared because of reasons which could be conveniently viewed through the framework of branches in Asian Australian studies, a view of Australian history through certain racialised filters, and or of those of Japanese diasporic studies, regarding unresolved aspects of Japanese involvement in WW2. It is fair to say that Murakami, having lived through racially oppressive times of the White Australia Policy, having been interned during the war, then dying whilst interned, would have contributed to the loss of his photographs. However truth never seems to fully surface when it is required of the researcher to present a coherent viewpoint and framework. Truth isn’t that clear cut. Truth is messy. And this may be one of the reasons why I am making art about Murakami, and my initial proposal to write a thesis was had not been accepted by academy.
There are many reasons a photographer’s work disappears from history. The first and foremost seem to be the photographer’s attitudes toward their own work. That is to say whether Murakami understood the importance of his documentation for posterity, and furthermore, if he had thought that signing or stamping the back of his prints before they left his studio, attributing his part in the work was important for furthering his income, status or other gains. From my research to date, it seems that he encased his photographs in a cardboard border with his name on it during his early career at the Nishioka Photographic Studio (c. 1900- 1915), but unlike popular practice of photographers in Darwin during the late 1930’s, back of his prints seem to have not been stamped with the name of his studio. It is difficult to tell for sure, and I would need to spend further days in Darwin, next time at the NT Library to view original photographs to draw this conclusion. I have already viewed well over 7000 images on-line, but the back of the photographs are not part of the NT Library’s on-line collections.
There are other factors at play, such as whether his surviving family members placed similar importance to his photographs. Murakami’s photography was a means for him to earn a living and support his family, not so much a work of art, an investment in his name as an artist. My current lack of knowledge of details of the Australian Copyright Act of 1905 prevents me from even hypothesising where Murakami stood in regards to his copyright practices. The current Australian Copyright Act 1968 which contemporary photographers may adhere to came well after Murakami’s death in 1944.
Other factors that need consideration when understanding how a photographer’s work may disappear in time include how intermediary archivists such as amateur historians and private collectors conducted their part in the archival process, and or where the focus existed in standard archiving policies of the time. An example of this is when photographic albums were not kept as albums, but were taken out of their albums and mixed with others by subject matter before being donated to the official archives, or when archivists in the field photographed the original photographs for the official archives, but not have photographed the back of the prints.
Last month I was given the opportunity by Australian Japanese Association of Northern Territory (AJANT) to give a talk at Darwin’s Museum & Art Gallery Theatre, explaining this project, and calling for assistance in finding Murakami’s photographs. This event has prompted me to give interviews to ABC Darwin local radio and the Sunday Territorian. As a result, the word is out – there is a search on for Murakami’s photographs. I would like the people of Darwin to help find them, because Yasukichi Murakamis story is part of Darwin’s story, the town’s collective memory of their pre war history, forgotten because of the violence of war, and this project may help us remember together.
In the mean time, the people who came to the talk gave me leads to follow. Each stone is being turned over – one at a time. Step by step.
– Posted by Mayu Kanamori