Seattle Camera Club

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The Seattle Camera Club (SCC) was an organization of photographers active in Seattle, Washington, during the 1920s. It was founded in 1924 by Japanese immigrants and thrived for the next five years. The SCC was the only Japanese American photography club to include both Caucasians and women photographers as members, and because of their inclusivity their members were among the most exhibited photographers in the world at that time.[1]


The 39 charter members of the club were all Japanese men. Unlike other prominent clubs of Japanese photographers, they decided at the beginning to welcome women and Caucasian members.[2] The driving force behind the club’s formation was Dr. Kyo Koike, who was a well‒respected medical doctor in Seattle’s Issei community.

They held monthly meetings at 508½ Main Street near Dr. Koike’s office. At these meetings members critiqued each other’s prints and discussed current ideas about photography. Dr. Koike wrote about these discussions in their monthly bulletin, as well as descriptions of photography trips the members had taken, names of those members who had exhibited recently, and commentaries about photography in general.[3]

The club’s bulletin was called Notan, which is a Japanese term that roughly translates as “light and shade”. These were qualities that defined the primary elements of a Japanese style of pictorialism that most of the original members prized.[4] Many of their photographs contained strong lighting and rhythmical patterns that emphasized the artistic quality of a scene.

In 1925 the club began its own salon, which originally featured photographs by its own members but later expanded to an international field of photographers. The artistic strength of their membership is indicated by the fact that in 1926 members of the club showed a collective 589 prints in different exhibitions around the world.[1] That same year Photo‒Era magazine offered a trophy for the photography club whose members won the most awards in the magazine’s competitions. The first winner of the trophy was the Seattle Camera Club.[5]

The club reached its peak membership in 1925 with 85 members, including several photographers who in lived in other areas of the country.[1] Two prominent Seattle women, Ella McBride and Virna Haffer, were among the club’s members by that time.[6] Only one‒quarter of the members then were Japanese Americans.[7]

Soon thereafter the membership in the club began to decline, primarily due to increasing economic difficulties that led up to the 1929 Great Depression. Many members held low-paying jobs, and with increased prices and a scarcity of jobs they could no longer afford to buy film or other photographic supplies.[8] On October 11, 1929 the club held a farewell meeting. Only 7 members attended, and they formally disbanded the club at that time.

Some of the more well-to-do members, like Koike and Matsushita, continued to make photographs and exhibit them when they could. All of their efforts ended with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Soon thereafter almost all of the Japanese American community in Seattle was transported to the Japanese American internment camps in Idaho or Montana.[9]

Prominent Members[edit]

Kyo Koike was a medical doctor who had a thriving practice in the Japanese community in Seattle. His professional income allowed him not only to concentrate on his photography but to underwrite many of the expenses of forming the club. He was the editor of the club's newsletter Notan. During World War II all of his photographic equipment was confiscated by the U.S. government, and he was taken to the Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho. He remained there until the end of the war, but while there he fell ill and never recovered. He died shortly after he was allowed to return to Seattle in 1947. He left all of his photographs and extensive records of the Seattle Camera Club to fellow club member Iwao Matsushita.[10]

Hideo Onishi (1890‒after 1934) was employed as a restaurant cook, but he was a prolific and very successful photographer. In 1926 he was the club’s top exhibitor for the year, and that same year more than 1,000 people attended an exhibition of his photographs at the Japanese Commercial Club in Seattle. He sold 233 copies of his prints at that exhibition and gave the profits to SCC.[11]

Frank Asakichi Kunishige (1978‒1960) was one of the original members of SCC and one of only a few club members who had formal training in photography. In 1911 he attended photography school in Illinois, and after moving to Seattle he worked in the darkrooms of Edward Curtis and Ella McBride.[12] Because of his training and experience he was one of the technical experts of the club. He created and sold his own photographic paper, Textura Tissue, which was a favorite of club members because it emphasized the soft qualities that Pictorial photographers prized.[13] During World War II he and his wife were sent to the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho. After their release they returned to Seattle, but he did not take up photography again.

Soichi Sunami (1885‒1971) learned photography in Seattle while working as an assistant at the studio of Ella McBride. In 1922 he moved to New York to study at Art Students League, where there he photographed student dancers and artists. He also continued showing his photographs at SCC and was one of the most active non‒resident members of the club. Later he became of the main photographers for the Museum of Modern Art and continued to work there for 38 years.[11]

Virna Haffer (1899-1974) was an accomplished, innovative, internationally renowned photographer, printmaker, painter, musician, and published author.[14] Born in 1899 in Aurora, Illinois, Virna Haffer and her family made the move to the Utopian community of Home, in South Puget Sound in Washington State in 1907.[15] Haffer began her journey as a professional photographer when she was just 15 years old when she became the apprentice of the accomplished photographer, Harriette H. Ihrig.[15] She opened her own portrait photography studio in Tacoma, Washington and began publishing her photographs in 1924. Haffer was known for experimenting with unusual, quirky techniques and created her own artistic style that stretched the boundaries of artistic classifications in the early twentieth century.[16] Haffer's work was eccentric; she produced pictorialist, modern, surreal, and documentary style work. Virna Haffer's work was first exhibited in 1924 in the Fifth Annual F&N Salon of Pictorial Photography, and in 1928 at the Seattle Camera Club's Fourth International Exhibition. By 1930 her work was internationally recognized, and often appeared in publications such as the American Annual of Photography. In addition, she won recognition and prizes in photographic competitions in the United States in the 1930's.[17] In the 1960's she took an interest in producing photograms, and was so successful that in 1969 she published a book about the process of making a photogram called Making Photograms: The Creative Process of Painting With Light.[18] Haffer's work was also the subject of several solo exhibitions not limited to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1960; Museum of Science & Industry, Los Angeles, 1964; New York Camera Club, 1967 and the Museum of Contemporary Arts & Crafts, NYC, 1968.[19]

Partial List of Members[11][edit]


Martin, David F. and Nicolette Bromberg. Shadows of a Fleeting World: Pictorial Photography and the Seattle Camera Club. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011. ISBN 9780295990859

Reed, Dennis. Making Waves: Japanese American Photography, 1920‒940. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2016. ISBN 9781943847716

Tsutakawa, Mayumi. They Painted from Their Hearts: Pioneers Asian American Artists. Seattle: Wing Luke Asian Museum, 1993. ISBN 0295974303


  1. ^ a b c Reed 2016, p. 158.
  2. ^ Reed 2016, p. 19.
  3. ^ Reed 2016, p. 157.
  4. ^ Lee, Shelley Sang‒Hee (2010). Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America. Temple University Press. p. 84. ISBN 9781439902134. 
  5. ^ Martin 2011, p. 66.
  6. ^ Henry Art Gallery. "Shadows of a Fleeting World: Pictorial Photography and Seattle Camera Club". Retrieved May 20, 2016. 
  7. ^ Tsutakawa 1993, p. 55.
  8. ^ Martin 2011, p. 71.
  9. ^ Martin 2011, p. 72.
  10. ^ Upchurch, Michael. "What became of the members and the work of the Seattle Camera Club?". Retrieved May 20, 2016. 
  11. ^ a b c Japanese American National Museum. "Making Waves: Japanese American Photography 1920‒1940". Retrieved May 20, 2016. 
  12. ^ Tsutakawa 1993, p. 73.
  13. ^ Reed 2016, p. 153.
  14. ^ Upchurch, Michael. "Virna Haffer's photos resurrected at TAM". Retrieved May 9, 2018. 
  15. ^ a b Henderson, Christina S., Francis, David F., Bullock, Margaret E., Haffer, Virna A. A Turbulent Lens: The Photographic Art of Virna Haffer. Tacoma Art Museum. 2011.
  16. ^ Sang-Hee Lee, Shelly. "Good American Subjects Done Through Japanese Eyes: Race, Nationality, and The Seattle Camera Club, 1924-1929". JSTOR 40491806. 
  17. ^ Sandler, Martin W. Against The Odds: Women Pioneers in The First Hundred Years Of Photography. St. Martins Press, 2002.
  18. ^ Cascadia Art Museum Volunteers. "Biography NW Realism" (PDF). Retrieved May 9, 2018. 
  19. ^ Seattle Camera Club. "Virna Haffer". Retrieved May 9, 2018.