A legacy uncovered
Shoichi Kudo’s intimate portrayal of Aomori
When Kanako Kudo was a young girl, her father, Shoichi, would sometimes place her in the frame to perfect a photograph, keeping himself an unseen observer with an eye for capturing poignant moments. Now, Kanako is making her father the subject, placing his long-hidden work front-and-center for the world to see.
When Shoichi died in 2014, Kanako thought she had seen most of the best photos he had taken during his career as a newsman in Aomori. She even donated a few prints to a local museum.
But in 2017, while packing up old furniture and going through mementos before tearing down the family home, she discovered a trove of negatives stashed away in a trunk. There were thousands of black-and-white photos her father had taken in the 1950s and never showed to anyone. Overwhelmed by the find and wanting to share her father’s intimate portrayal of his hometown, Kanako saved the negatives and set to work scanning the images and uploading them to Instagram.
The photos themselves are compelling enough, but it's Shoichi's life that colors them with context.
Shoichi Kudo was born in 1929, the son of a livestock trader in Aomori Prefecture. By all accounts, the Kudos were not rich and young Shoichi attended school without shoes. Despite the family’s struggles, he was a good student and enjoyed his studies.
In 1945, Shoichi was 16-years-old and Japan was losing the war. While the emperor was announcing the surrender of Japan, Shoichi and his classmates were in the forest gathering tree roots for food. Had the war continued another year, he would have been conscripted. The Kudo's eldest son had already gone to fight and would be waylaid for more than a year before returning home from the Siberian front.
His brother’s absence added a burden of responsibility on Shoichi’s shoulders. Despite his stellar grades, Shoichi didn’t attend university and instead worked to help support his family. Kanako says her father's lack of higher education fueled a complex that followed him throughout his life. Shoichi found work at To-o Nippo Press, Aomori's longest-running newspaper. Working first in the printing room, he was soon transferred to the photo department. It was then that he began taking photos around Aomori, making use of the newspaper's camera and developing room while saving up to buy his own equipment.
When he was 21, Shoichi began submitting his photos to Camera, one of Japan’s oldest photography and camera magazines, which ran from 1921 to 1956. Despite his lack of training, Shoichi was often picked as the winner of the amateur competitions alongside such luminaries of Japanese photography as Ihei Kimura, Ken Domon and Hiroshi Hamaya.
These established photographers took notice of Shoichi's skill and offered advice on techniques such as cropping and composition. Eventually, a few of them invited him to Tokyo for a roundtable discussion. He accepted the invitation, but once in their company, he found himself intimidated by the more educated, cosmopolitan artists.
Kanako says her father felt he had nothing to add to the discussion. Perhaps suffering from what is now referred to as “imposter syndrome,” Shoichi hesitated to pursue the life of a contemporary artist in the big city. Looking at his photographs, however, it's not hard to see the potential other photographers saw in Shoichi’s work.
In Shoichi Kudo’s Aomori, fishermen and their wives pull loaded boats back on to shore; families and neighbors play badminton together on unpaved streets; men wearing sugegasa (conical hats) lead horse-drawn carts through crowds on a snowy winter’s day; a solitary child is surrounded by a sky full of birds; the photos stun with their skill as often as with pure nostalgia.
Children and family life feature heavily. There's a sense of Shoichi attempting to reify everyday domestic scenes into something more idyllic. In his enormous body of work, the photographer captured an intimate, humanist milieu of a postwar Aomori.
Some of his photos, however, evoke feelings of isolation and solitude.
In one of his most striking images, a lone figure walks up a snow-covered hill. The path behind him an ink-black line that follows him to the crest. Given his own solitary photographic journey, the image can be interpreted as a metaphor for Shoichi himself — an artist who decided to keep to a well-worn path instead of venturing into the wilder unknown.
At 26, Shoichi married and chose to stay at the newspaper in Aomori. He continued to take photographs, but never again considered pursuing the life of a full-time artist. Instead, he mentored the up-and-coming photojournalists working at the paper, saying many of them had surpassed him in talent. He turned down a promotion in favor of an early retirement, which he later regretted due to boredom. To cure it, he woke early each day and spent most of his free time fishing. For over six decades, his photographs remained unseen in the attic of the Kudo home, waiting to be discovered by his daughter.
Even now, Kanako wonders how her father would’ve felt about his photos being uploaded on social media for thousands of strangers to see. She’s certain he took pride in his work, having kept the negatives safe for all those years. Each photograph posted reflects his dedication to his craft and illuminates the lives of the people he documented in Aomori. The positive online response has led to Shoichi's very first monograph, which will be published in Japan next year.
We may be witnessing the nascent beginnings of a long-delayed photographic legacy.