The ‘plucky pioneer’ of photojournalism

by Lucy Birmingham

At 96, Tsuneko Sasamoto, Japan’s first female photojournalist, remains a remarkable force of energy, creativity and inspiration. Dubbed a “plucky pioneer” and “the Annie Liebovitz of her day,” Sasamoto has photographed some of Japan’s greatest personalities and historical moments during her 70-year career. Though widely published in Japan, she is a hidden gem for international audiences.

“She saw Showa,”an upcoming exhibition of her postwar Showa Era images from 1945-1958 at Cosmo Gallery in Kamimeguro, is an excellent opportunity to learn about this extraordinary woman. Organized by writer Kate Klippensteen and her partner, photographer Yasuo Konishi, the works on display reveal Sasamoto’s distinctive documentary style and natural approach to portraiture, which was unique among her male counterparts of the day.

Like any pioneer, Sasamoto is no stranger to challenges. Her life has not been easy. “Originally I wanted to be a painter,” she recalls. “But my father didn’t allow it, saying, ‘It’s not what a woman should be.’ ” She tried college, but dropped out and then pursued illustration and pattern-making; the start of her long love for fashion.

It was a black-and-white film by Man Ray she saw with a friend in 1937 that sparked her interest in photography.

“In those days, painting was considered a prestigious, high-level art and photography was frowned upon,” she explains. “So when I saw a film by Man Ray ‘the painter’ with his new photography, it really opened my eyes about the genre. Until then, I’d thought of photography as images taken at the local studio for family albums.”

Soon after, she met her future mentor, Kenichi Hayashi. A former journalist with the Mainichi Shimbun, he was heading the photo agency, Japan Photo Library. Hayashi convinced her to join the agency in 1940 as Japan’s first woman photojournalist. “My one year with the agency was like going through four years of college,” Sasamoto says. “I learned so much.”

Photojournalists covering the fast-paced news stories at that time often struggled with primitive equipment. The single-lens reflex camera was not yet commonly used and distances had to be measured manually. Flash photography was a one-shot deal, as bulbs had to be changed for each picture.

Despite the technical difficulties, Sasamoto found clever ways to photograph difficult moments, making the most of her wit, naivete and sheer guts. Endowed with a razor-sharp memory, she can still recall those moments with startling clarity.

“There’s something about Sasamoto- san’s way — so determined and passionate,” explains Kate Klippensteen. “In general she is hesitant and reserved, but as a journalist, she could create that persona for herself.”

Klippensteen adds, “She would ask people to do things like no one else, and end up getting her way.”

Dwuring an assignment in 1940 to photograph a group of Hitler Youth visiting Japan’s countryside, Sasamoto and her male colleagues neglected to bring their flash equipment, assuming all the shots would be outside. As the Hitler Youth nibbled on potatoes with local farmers in a dark hut, the photographers stood outside helpless, missing the historic moment.

“What I did was simply knock on the hut door and ask if they wouldn’t mind eating outside. They obliged and everyone got the shot they wanted,” she explains. “After that, the guys started treating me more as an equal.” Although she was worried about the consequences of her actions, she admits, “I just couldn’t help myself. I was very unusual.”

Even a lofty Imperial family prince once agreed to one of her requests. It was 1940 and the Imperial family was slowly entering the realm of commoners. “I heard that Prince Mikasa was quite open minded, so I asked for an interview and photo session. His steward told me it was unprecedented, but the prince agreed,” she says. “When my assistant and I were finished and putting on our shoes to leave, the prince offered my assistant a shoe horn. It was unheard of.”

She also worked her charm on Japan’s new chief, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his wife Jean at a silk exhibition in 1947. As the couple wove their way through the show, with the press following their every move, the petite Sasamoto jostled through the crowd of male photographers to get her shot.

“But my flash didn’t work!” she says, laughing. “So I went quietly up to Mrs. MacArthur and asked in English, ‘Please could you pose for me?’ Sure enough they did, and thank goodness my flash cooperated. That’s when I learned the big advantage of knowing English.”

Sasamoto’s boundless energy and commitment to her craft have brought her far. In 2007, at the age of 93, she lectured at universities in Paris and Tunisia. This year she will be heading to New York City for an assignment, appropriately, on women professionals.

“In New York I’m looking forward to drinking some good wine and seeing the sights,” she says with her characteristic bright smile. “But first, I want to work.”

“She Saw Showa: Postwar Perspectives by Tsuneko Sasamoto, 96, Japan’s First Woman Photojournalist” at Gallery Cosmos runs Sept. 28-Oct. 5; admission free; open daily 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. (Mon., holidays and the last day of exhibition till 3 p.m.). For more information, visit www.gallerycosmos.com.