Kiyoshi Sakamoto: Portrait of a Photographer


On March 8, 1918, National Geographic editor, Gilbert Grosvenor received a letter from Arthur Hosking regarding several photographs the Society had recently purchased.  Hosking was handling the transaction for the photographer, a Japanese schoolteacher named Kiyoshi Sakamoto, and he thought Sakamoto and National Geographic might be a good match.  “His case is a very interesting one,” wrote Hosking:

 “He learned English from a Yale professor living in Tokio some years ago, and his syntax is seldom faulty; while his meaning is always clear.  Such being the case, your literary reader, or copy reader, can make an article by Mr. Sakamoto very much worth while.”

Editors at National Geographic did indeed find Sakamoto’s work worthwhile.  The letter marked the beginning of what would be a decades-long relationship between the Society and the photographer.  Throughout the early part of the 1920s, packages of Sakamoto’s photos were steadily making their way from Japan to the Society’s D.C. headquarters.  Sakamoto was an enthusiastic contributor, frequently mailing off photographs to the magazine as soon as they were developed – a little too frequently, as it turned out.   After someone at Geographic complained about having to draft and mail so many checks in such small amounts, Dr. Grosvenor wrote Sakamoto with a polite request to put the brakes on his submissions.  “I believe,” he wrote, “it would be preferable to allow the pictures you obtain to accumulate and send them less frequently but in larger numbers.”

Nevertheless, the magazine never turned down a chance to look at Sakamoto’s work.  Franklin L. Fisher, the Chief of Illustrations, wrote that Sakamoto possessed “a real artist’s appreciation of composition and pictures.”  Looking at the photographs, it’s easy to agree.  Sakamoto’s photographs capture life in pre-World-War-II Japan and distill it into quiet, lovely moments:  little boys playing Samurais, a robed Buddhist priest chiming a bell, a young nurse with a sleeping baby lolling on her back, a fisherman casting his net out into the water while Mt. Fuji looms in the background.

They liked his photographs so much that, in April of 1926, they invited him to Washington, D.C. to learn about autochrome photography.  More than ten years earlier, National Geographic had published its first natural-color photograph, and the transition from black-and-white to color photography was underway.  All of Geographic’s photographic staff knew how to shoot in color, and Fisher was encouraging Sakamoto to learn the technique and expand his repertoire.  Always eager to oblige, Sakamoto turned his hand to autochrome work, although he initially found it frustrating.  The Lumiere process was an “intricate” one, requiring the use of heavy glass plates, bright light, and long exposure times.  These constraints limited a photographer’s options – mostly to posed portraits and landscape scenes.  As though that weren’t enough, the humid air also complicated the development process.   Not long after his trip, he wrote a discouraged letter to Charles Martin, the chief of the Photographic Department:

“My dear Mr. Martin,

Since I returned home, I have taken so many autochromes pictures but sorry to say I am not yet fortunate enough to get even a single plate of ‘excellence’.  I often forgot to put a filter on the lens.  Last Saturday I went up to Kyoto to take six pictures of an old garden beautifully adorned with azaleas, but alas!  I found some of the pictures to have been taken without a filter.  I must, however, have more bitter experience before I come to be a ‘good hand’ in autochrome photography.”

It was only a temporary setback though.  Thanks to Martin’s encouraging words and Sakamoto’s persistence, the photographer went on to produce more than one plate of colorful “excellence”, some of which he sold to National Geographic and at least one that won him recognition at the Photographic Fine Arts Exhibition of Osaka in 1929.

With prizes won and regular sales of his work to National Geographic, Sakamoto had achieved success that many photographers would have envied.  Reading his letters, however, one can’t help but think of Sakamoto as a frustrated artist.  For all his polite professionalism, hints of dissatisfaction occasionally surface.  His work as a teacher allowed him to get by, but the money wasn’t plentiful.  The biggest frustration wasn’t financial though.  It was the time his day job required – time he would rather have spent with his camera.

He wanted to be more than a successful amateur.  He wanted to give up his teaching position, and become a staff photographer for National Geographic magazine, and in 1928, he wrote to ask if he might be considered for such a position.  One can only imagine how disappointed he must have been when Franklin wrote him back with a regretful but firm reply:  no.

No reasons were given.  Or if they were, they were given off the record, and we’ll never be sure why National Geographic editors turned Sakamoto down, in spite of their obvious admiration for his work.  Still, Sakamoto continued selling his photographs to National Geographic until the early 1930s. What happened to him after that is unclear.  The last place he surfaces in the Society files is an intraoffice memo dated November 5th 1947:

“Regarding Mr. Kiyoshi Sakamoto – Some years ago we purchased material from him.  We have had no word since March 1933. . . .  Do not know whether he is living or dead.”

That is, until last December’s issue National Geographic where one of Sakamoto’s autochrome photographs was chosen for the “Flashback” section on the final page of the magazine.  In it, two “carefully coiffed” Japanese ladies, are wading, hand-in-hand out to sea.  The impression it leaves behind is one of something beautiful and a little elusive.  And somehow it’s a fitting tribute to the photographer who preserved it for posterity.


Human Journey

Meet the Author
Alyson Foster works in the National Geographic Library where she purchases books for the Library’s collection and assists NG staff with finding research materials.