Japanese American National Museum
Los Angeles, California
Catalogue essay.
May 31-September 14, 2003

Sights Unseen, The Photographic Constructions of Masumi Hayashi
by Karin Higa, Curator.

Masumi Hayashi's panoramic photo collages explore the incongruity between appearance and reality in the American experience. She does this by creating photographs of contested sites: abandoned prisons, post-industrial landscapes, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund Sites, and the remains of American concentration camps. Yet, the resulting panoramic photo collages exhibit tremendous beauty, laced with both precise detail and abstraction. Without overt or critical commentary, they explore both the surface and the reality behind such places, whether they be panoramic landscapes or haunting interiors.

This is especially the case with Hayashi's series on EPA Superfund Sites, which reminds us that another reality lurks literally beneath the surface. When she first encountered these locations, Hayashi was surprised by what she found: "The site looks everyday: bucolic, pristine and pretty. The irony is that you cannot see the pollution." EPA Superfund Site 666 (1990) depicts a picturesque autumn landscape of blue skies and ethereal clouds reflected in a pool of water; only the title suggests something sinister. But the surface beauty of the image contrasts with the basic record. From 1950 to 1969, LTV Steel Company of Elyria, Ohio, used this quarry as a disposal site for acids among other things. The result was a hazardous waste dump requiring substantial federal funds to clean and isolate. The eerie number of the site registers another stunning fact: Elyria was 666th on a list of more than 1,000 toxic waste sites identified by the EPA.

Hayashi continued her exploration of stories hidden in the landscape by turning her attention to an intensely personal subject. In 1990, she began a decade-long project of photographing the physical sites of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. From 1942 to 1946, over 120,000 Japanese Americans were subject to detention and housed in concentration camps in ten primary locales. Many of these sites became instant population centers, often dwarfing nearby free communities in sheer number of people. Yet today, little remains to suggest that the largest removal and incarceration of civilians in twentieth-century American history occurred there.

Hayashi inaugurated the series at Gila River, Arizona, the place of her birth. Armed with her birth certificate and a copy of the infamous Civilian Exclusion Order of 1942 that required "All Persons of Japanese Ancestry" to report for incarceration, Hayashi traveled to the Gila River Prima-Maricopa Indian Reservation* to photograph the site. The resulting photo collage shows the desolate remains of concrete foundations set against a large expanse of sky. This scene recalls aspects of Hayashi's post-industrial landscapes, except here the contrast between the remnants of the camp and the barren landscape seems especially stark. As if to anticipate the questions about who lived there and for what purpose, Hayashi includes the copy of the Civilian Exclusion Order in the photograph. This is a rare insertion by the artist into the landscape, as Hayashi generally photographs the sites as she finds them, though the shadow of her tripod often appears as a specter of the artist's presence.

A key characteristic of Hayashi's work is the fact that her photo collages refrain from overt commentary. She creates work of tremendous beauty and simplicity, even though the landscapes she selects are primarily sites of conflict and contestation. Her work does not preach or condemn. Rather, it entices the viewer to learn and question through attraction to the physical, and often haunting, beauty of a site-whether it be the inherent beauty of the landscape or that which results from the transformations of her artmaking.

To create her panoramic photo collages, Hayashi's process is both systematic and open to change. She begins at the horizon line, shooting approximately two dozen photographs in a horizontal circular rotation until she ends up where she began. She then angles upwards, then downwards, continuing until she has fully captured the landscape around her. After she returns to the studio, she collaborates with a printer to produce the component photographs and begins the final phase of assembling the collages. Rather than submit to a rigid framework, Hayashi plays with the discrete images to determine what might make-first and foremost-a convincing work of art. The resulting photo collages range from a 100 degree to 540 degree rotation and include as many as 140 individual photographs or as few as five.

Hayashi's use of multiple images underscores the insufficiency of a single photograph to capture complex experiences and realities. Viewers must simultaneously process the individual component parts as they try to make sense of the vertiginous perspectives produced by the circular rotation. This is especially the case in Hayashi's photographs of interior spaces, where the camera distorts what the eye and brain naturally process. In Tule Lake Relocation Camp, Stockade (1992), the photograph makes a dizzying one-and-a-half revolution. The stockade was constructed as a prison within the prison of Tule Lake. Several hundred Japanese Americans were held there without hearing or trial for up to nine months after a peaceful demonstration by inmates was treated as a security threat. Although the photograph is enhanced by such historical information, it does not require it; it manages to convey the aura and tumult of the site through its formal rigor and artistic expression.

For this exhibition, Hayashi presents-for the first time-a series of five portraits of Japanese-North Americans who collectively represent both exceptional and ordinary actions by people subject to the vagaries of world war: Fumi Hayashida (whose photograph by the War Relocation Authority became an emblem of the indignity of the mass exclusion), community activist Yuri Kochiyama, author Joy Kogawa, artist Miné Okubo, and World War II veteran Eji Suyama. Here the photo collages function in a different way. Instead of using the rotational perspective of her landscapes, the format of the portraits is much looser. The multiple perspectives underscore the impossibility of representing a person and their life through the act of conventional portraiture.

Hayashi notes that "by working on the [camp] series, I was able to satisfy some need, some frustration about dealing" with the legacy of incarceration that affected her family in such difficult and tragic ways. It is interesting then, that her most recent work has shifted to a different kind of highly charged locale: that of sacred sites, which often relate to ancestor worship. Traveling to Japan, India, and Nepal, Hayashi has produced a new body of work that captures spiritual depth and atmospheric detail. Here the landscape is reverentially depicted, yet the photo collages retain Hayashi's hallmark approach, which results in art of simplicity, beauty, and resonant places.


* Gila River and Poston (Arizona) were two War Relocation Authority concentration camps located on Indian reservation land. While the camp at Poston was initially administered by the Office of Indian Affairs, Gila River was not. Furthermore, the federal government sited the camp there without obtaining the consent of the Pima-Maricopa Tribal Council. For more information, see Arthur Hansen, "Gila River Relocation Center" in Rick Noguchi, ed. Transforming Barbed Wire: The incarceration of Japanese Americans in Arizona during World War II (Phoenix, AZ: Arizona Humanities Council, 1997) 7-9.