Somehow, of love and immortality

Upon returning from photographing a wedding on Pearl Beach last weekend, I found a message from a man named Greg Leon in Melbourne:

I have just seen a news article at ABC Online… regarding Yasukichi Murakami and your biographical work on him. The article mentioned the scarcity of his photographs from his Darwin years. I have a set of 15 photographs that Mr Murakami may have taken of my parents when they were married in Darwin in May 1940. If you are interested please let me know… Regards, Greg

Interested?! This is what I’ve been doing for nearly 3 years: Looking for Yasukichi Murakami’s photographs, especially from Darwin.

I telephoned Greg immediately.

Back of the envelope

Back of the envelope found by Greg Leon.

Dear Mayu,

I was surprised and delighted to receive your call today. The timing was something of a coincidence as I was scheduled this afternoon to perform (inter alia) a song I wrote that refers to Murakami-san’s photos of my parents’ wedding in Darwin in 1940. For info, I am a part-time singer-songwriter (and a semi-retired IT Consultant, Project Manager, Business Analyst).

I have attached scans of the envelope in which I found the photos (as film negatives). I have also attached one of the images revealing the shadow of the photographer!

Imelda (nee Leahy) and Tony Leon on their wedding day in Darwin, 1940. Photo probably by Yasukichi Murakami

Imelda (nee Leahy) and Tony Leon on their wedding day in Darwin, 1940. Photo probably by Yasukichi Murakami

When I was a younger photographer working for Fairfax Media, many of my colleagues said wedding photography was not a path to pursue for a serious photojournalist. Yet I enjoyed enjoy being of service as a photographer who endeavours to leave memories of love.

Photographing a wedding gives a photographer a great chance for his / her work to serve for generations to come. In a sense, it is our best shot at immortality.

Greg added:

My parents were Imelda (nee Leahy) and Tony Leon. Both were born in Adelaide, but my father’s family were from Melbourne. I understand that they met in Darwin just three weeks prior to their wedding. I am not sure when they returned to Adelaide, but I assume it was prior to 1941. After the start of the “Pacific” war, my father enlisted and went to New Guinea, while my mother remained in Adelaide as a nurse in one of the military hospitals. After I was born in 1947, my parents moved to Melbourne where I have spent the rest of my life to date.

Looking a little more critically – and from an amateur photographer’s perspective – some questions spring to mind:

– Why would a professional photographer allow his shadow to fall within the frame?

– Wouldn’t a professional photographer retain the negatives, rather than returning them to the client?

– Looking at the photographs as a set, I cannot help thinking they are almost too casual for a pro.

So, the Big One: was Murakami-san the actual photographer, or did he just process the film as a service for the person who took the photographs? What do you think?

Looking forward to further discussion!

Best regards, Greg

Envelope found by Greg Leon. The handwriting is that of Yasukichi Murakami's.

Envelope found by Greg Leon. The handwriting is that of Yasukichi Murakami’s.

I do not know all the answers.

I know that when I had photographed weddings on negatives, I often gave the negatives to the bride and groom. They are best with them, and not for us to keep a hold on the work we have taken part and brought to creation.

Murakami did leave his shadow in two of his family photographs.  There could be many more. John E deB Norman told me once that he has a photograph of Eki Nishioka’s shadow. Perhaps it was Eki who taught Murakami to leave his shadow in a photo every so often.

Somehow, the words love and immortality to come to mind.

Emma Dean and Joon Yang at Pearl Beach 2014 Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Emma Dean and Joon Yang at Pearl Beach 2014 Photo by Mayu Kanamori

– Posted by Mayu Kanamori


Darwin Festival

19  August 2014 8:15pm & 20 August 2014 6pm & 8:15pm Brown’s Mart Theatre

Sitting at the very back of the packed-out Brown’s Mart Theatre on the world premier of Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens, I thought I could hear every murmur, each gasp, laughter and finally, sniffle by the group of dozen Murakami family members who sat in the front row.

In making this work, listening became the most important thing to do. To listen carefully to the voice of Yasukichi Murakami’s spirit, the voices of the creative collaborators, and to my own inner voice of truth. This active listening required more effort than to speak out loud. For many years I had thought it a vital process of becoming an artist to express, and out loudly, but through this project,  I have learned expressive less, more receptive, let go, and allow the creative to emerge as it naturally flowed outwards.

Although those Murakami family members who had received a copy of the script gave their blessing, I was still very worried whether the family members would like how their ancestor was portrayed on stage. To my relief, when we met at the theatre forecourt after the show, it was obvious that they were pleased with the results.


Cast and crew wht Murakami family members after the premier of Yasukichi Murakami Through a Distant Lens photo by Greg Aitkin

Cast and crew with Murakami family members after the premier of Yasukichi Murakami Through a Distant Lens photo by Greg Aitkin. Front row L to R – Veronica McLennan, Arisa Yura, Mayu Kanamori, Julie Murakami, Jacqueline Murakami, Annette Shun Wah, David Murakami, Terumi Narushima. Back row L to R -Malcolm Blaylock, Calvin Murakami, Maius Lai, Kevin Murakami, Peter Murakami, Yvonne Wood, Benjamin Brockman.

It was important to premier this work as part of Darwin Festival, Darwin’s most prestigious and recognised art festival, because this is where Yasukichi Murakami and his family were arrested as an enemy alien and it is where most of his descendants live today. Because of  this, Darwin is where the honour of his name and work need to be remembered, acknowledged and celebrated the most.

– Posted by Mayu Kanamori


Archives and collective memory

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.

Françoise Barr,  Research Librarian, NT Archives Photo by Mayu Kanamori
Françoise Barr, Research Librarian, NT Archives
Photo by Mayu Kanamori

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.

Mayu Kanamori at NT Archives Photo by Françoise Barr
Mayu Kanamori at NT Archives
Photo by Françoise Barr

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.

Sunday Territorian photographer Katrina Bridgeford with Julie Murakami. On the table are Yasukichi Murakami's  photographs. Photo by Mayu Kanamori
Sunday Territorian photographer Katrina Bridgeford with Julie Murakami. On the table are Yasukichi Murakami’s photographs. Photo by Mayu Kanamori
Julie Murakami and Mayu Kanamori on Sunday Territorian. Story by Nicole Mills
Julie Murakami and Mayu Kanamori on Sunday Territorian. Story by Nicole Mills

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

Archivists and heritage experts

Julie Murakami and I began our search for Yasukichi Murakami’s life and photographs he has left behind at the Northern Territory office of the National Archives of Australia. Thankfully the archivist who assisted us was supportive, encouraging and enthusiastic, giving us an auspicious start to our research. She helped us with clues about how to tackle the massive archives that held the records of our national heritage. A local woman of Aboriginal and Chinese descent, she was also interested in her own family history, searching for information about her Chinese grandfather. She told us that research can be addictive, and watching her navigate the massive web of our archives, continuously clicking her mouse, following one lead after another, made me think that this could indeed be a portrait of an addict. But then again, I think it may be my own delusional tendencies that needed a reality check: I was beginning to believe that it was the spirits of those buried underneath the vaults of our archives that possessed us to so passionately dig into our hidden histories.

Archival Officer Joanne Wood at National Archives, NT Office. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

At the Heritage Branch of the Northern Territory’s Department of Natural Resources, Environment, The Arts and Sport, we met a dedicated and very helpful heritage expert who had some years ago written a report about the heritage listed building in Cavanaugh Street in Darwin’s Central Business District, commonly known as the Stone Houses. In the report is the name Murakami as one of the occupants of this building in the early 1940’s. It is by coincidence that he had answered the phone when I rang to seek some help in locating where Yasukichi’s photographic studio may have been. Such coincidences make me feel that the spirits are with us, and once again, I find the need to remind myself not to be carried away.

At the Northern Territory Archives Service we met an archivist who awakened us to the broader and more meaningful implications of the search for Yasukichi Murakami’s photographs. So professional was her approach to her trade, it made clear to us her dedication to public service, beyond the servicing of Julie and I and her current array of clients / researchers, but for the generation after and the generation thereon after.

Julie Murakami at NT archives. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Meeting with archivists and heritage experts have inspired my processes of art making to take shape in a very different way to what I had imagined. I am unsure how to put it in words just at the moment, but I do know that it will be an important part of the story I am about to tell of Yasukichi Murakami’s life and work. The current clues point towards how an individual photographer / image maker takes part in service of the collective memory of future generations, how our archival practices take part in this process, and how art making can make a difference. It all sounds very grand and perhaps very vague, but I can begin in small specific ways: by suggesting corrections when noticing an error in the records, whenever possible requesting digitization and opening of records which are yet to be opened, and to encourage wider public access to the treasures and secrets hidden in our archives.

– Posted by Mayu Kanamori

Julie Murakami

Julie Murakami and I met in a restaurant in Rapid Creek, a suburb of Darwin for a Japanese meal. After sharing with her my efforts to date of locating photographs Yasukichi Murakami had left behind, she helped me with the family tree on her father’s side of her family, starting with Jubei and Yasu, Yasukichi’s parents from Tanami in Wakayama Prefecture.

Yasukichi married Theresa Shigeno and had nine children, six boys and three girls. Julie is the daughter of David Yoshiji, who is the second son of Kathleen Masuko and Yoshio Murakami. Kathleen Masuko is the oldest daughter of Yasukichi and Theresa. Julie’s father David Yoshiji Murakami was born in an internment camp in Tatura.

Julie had contacted me last year by commenting on this project blog, letting me know that she was Yasukichi’s great granddaughter. Since then we have kept contact by email, exchanging information about her great-grandfather, and we decided to join forces in our search of his legacy.

Rapid Cafe at Rapid Creek Business Village. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

-Posted by Mayu Kanamori