Yasuhiro Wakabayashi, who went by the name “Hiro” and was a Japanese-American photographer, died on Sunday at his country home in Erwinna, Pennsylvania. His fashion and still-life photographs revealed a constantly changing side of American life, drawing comparisons to the work of his idol and mentor, Richard Avedon.
He was 90.
His son, Gregory Wakabayashi, told us that he had died.
On the hoof of a Black Angus steer were a diamond and ruby Harry Winston necklace. A pyramid of Cartier watches is set in a green and blue landscape that looks like the moon. A strange woman was in the dunes at dusk, floating like a ghost in a black nightgown that had been caught in the wind. It was so much better and more beautiful than the reality that it was the stuff of fashion advertising dreams.
If Hiro’s photos often looked like they were from another world, it might be because his early life was so strange.
He was born in Shanghai a year before the Japanese invaded Manchuria. As the son of a Japanese linguist who may have been a spy, he grew up during the chaos of World War II in China. His family was imprisoned in Peking at the end of the war, and when they went home in 1946, Japan was in ruins because it was occupied.
He went to high school in Tokyo, but he felt like a stranger in his own country. Jeeps, Red Fox beer cans, and other things from American culture interested him. He read American fashion magazines in hotels and in the homes of the American officers he taught Japanese too. The work of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn really caught his attention. He got a camera and took pictures of his broken world.
In his early 20s, he realized that photos put together every day and the strange could make something ordinary into something interesting and sellable. It was cool to use it in real life. But he realized later that interesting surprises like gems on a cow’s hoof or a ghost’s nightgown could also show up in a still life, a portrait of a model, or an action shot of a cockfight.
In 1954, he went to California with the audacious plan of working for Avedon, a famous fashion photographer who took pictures of models dancing in nightclubs and roller skating across the Place de la Concorde. After working as an apprentice for two commercial photographers for two years, he got a job as an apprentice at the Avedon studio in New York.
Soon, Hiro was telling the boss about his new ideas. In 1957, Avedon told Alexey Brodovitch, who was in charge of art at Harper’s Bazaar, about him. This started an 18-year job as a staff photographer for one of the best fashion magazines in the country. After he opened his own studio, he worked as a freelancer for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and other magazines.
In just a few years, Hiro became a famous fashion photographer. In 1969, the American Society of Magazine Photographers named him the photographer of the year. In January 1982, he got a whole issue of the trade magazine American Photographer, which asked, “Is this man America’s best photographer?”
The American photographer said, “Avedon’s decision was spot on.” After 25 years, Hiro is still one of the best photographers in the country he moved to. Hiro has changed the way photographs look and the way photographers do their jobs. He has done this with the practical brilliance of a Renaissance master.
When Hiro moved beyond fashion, he did portraits of famous people, like the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune in 1966, the Rolling Stones in 1976, and the writer Robert Penn Warren in 1978.
He once used a strange picture of a woman’s face in profile as she lay down against a sea and sky background to show how a perfume smells. He did the trick by making it look like smoke was coming out of her mouth.
One of his landscapes showed the Navajo Generating Station at Lake Powell, Arizona, in 1977, with a huge smoke plume leveled off in the sky by wind currents high above.
In 1969, Hiro asked Harper’s Bazaar if he could take pictures of the launch of the Apollo 11 moon mission from Florida. “We’re not a science magazine,” they told him. He still shot the launch. He took a picture of the fiery launch, with people silhouetted against the light of creation. It was on the editorial page of the magazine and on the page next to it, with the title “Portrait of Humanity.”
In 1981, he took a picture of a fake cockfight. On film, the battle looked like a series of explosive lunges. The birds jumped, feinted, and hit each other with their talons, sending mauve, black, gold, and scarlet feathers into the air. But there was no dance of death in real life. Before any damage could be done, the birds’ handlers brought them back, and the two birds went home to fight another day.
Two of the most bizarre pictures he made were of women’s feet. One was a bigger version of a big toenail that had been shaped and painted red like a fire engine. At the top of it was a tiny black ant. It looked like an explorer had just reached the top of a mountain. The second one showed the bottom of a foot resting on small round stones that looked like the toes. A tarantula was moving over the heel.
In the fall of 1980, many of Hiro’s friends and colleagues got together at a restaurant with a view of the Manhattan skyline to celebrate his 50th birthday. Halston, the designer, said, “I’ve always looked up to Hiro.” “He works in the most professional and quiet way, and you can always rely on him.” “He is the best photographer of still lifes in the world.”
Yasuhiro Wakabayashi was born in Shanghai on November 3, 1930. He was one of five children of Japanese parents who were officially living in China because his father was making a Japanese-Chinese dictionary. He may have also been a spy for Tokyo. When he was a young boy in the late 1930s, Yasuhiro saw strangers show up late at night and leave early the next morning.
In 1937, when the Sino-Japanese War started, he was six years old. He remembered that foreign families in Shanghai were in a lot of trouble when Japanese imperial troops invaded the city. When the war started, the Wakabayashi were already on their way home to Japan. After a few months, they went back to China with the Japanese army, which had won the war. They spent the rest of the war in Peking, which was ruled by the Japanese.
Yasuhiro went to Japanese schools and lived with his family in an area for civilians. In 1945, he was 14 years old when U.S. bombers used atomic bombs to destroy the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Soon, his family’s safe life would be over. They were locked up in China for five months, and in 1946, they were sent back to Japan. From 1946 to 1949, he went to high school in Tokyo. Five years later, he moved to the United States.
In 1959, he married set designer Elizabeth Clark. Gregory Clark and Hiro Clark were their two sons. His wife, sons, four grandchildren, and a younger sister who lives in Japan all live on after him.
In 1990, Hiro became a naturalized US citizen. He had a studio in Manhattan, where he lived.
He showed his work in New York, London, and other cities. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London all have permanent collections of his work.
It has also been in many books, like “Hiro: Photographs,” which was put together by Avedon and named one of the best photography books of 1999 by Andy Grundberg in The New York Times Book Review. “In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hiro was a big name in fashion photography, but then he almost disappeared,” Grundberg wrote. “This wonderful summary of his career so far shows that talent and fame are not the same things.”