On the Practice of the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art | Part III: Interview with Kunie Sugiura

Oral History Interview with Kunie Sugiura

Conducted by Reiko Tomii and Hiroko Ikegami, 15 September 2008
Oral History Archives of Japanese Art (URL:
At Sugiura’s residence-studio in Chinatown, New York City Transcribed by Suzuki Yoshiko
Translated by Reiko Tomii

[. . .]

Tomii: Then at the age of 20, you decided to quit physics and study art.

[. . .]

Sugiura: I entered Ochanomizu [a national women’s university]. After one year, I went to a high school reunion called Alumni. I heard that a girl from my class got into the Tokyo University of the Arts after failing the entrance exam on her first try. I was envious. I got into physics, but at Ochanomizu, physics students had to study harder than high school students for college entrance exams. [. . .]  So I was sick and tired of it. Moreover, I came to understand that even if I got a Master’s degree or a Doctoral degree, all a woman could be was a high school teacher at best. That’s the period. Actually if you were unlucky, you might end up being a teacher at elementary school. The future predicament was like that. [. . .]  I began to think I wouldn’t like it. That’s when I heard about this girl who got in the national art university. I definitely wanted to do art, too. However, in Japan, the entrance exam for art school emphasised [drawing] skills. I didn’t study drawing at all. I could not do it in Japan. So I tried a Chicago school.

Tomii: Why Chicago? Sugiura: I chose Chicago because there was a woman in my neighborhood who happened to have completed her study in an art school in Milwaukee. I consulted with her. She said her school in Milwaukee was good. I think that it was called Art Center or something, but she also told me about a few other good art schools. And she recommended [the school at] the Chicago Art Institute to be very good. I went to the American embassy or somewhere and sent for the material. I could apply to the institute from Japan. So I tried, and I got accepted.

[. . .]

Tomii: I see. My next question is, how did you pay for your study abroad? The institute is a private school, isn’t it?

Sugiura: I think the institute was, and still is, very inexpensive. 3,000 dollars or so. [. . .]  And America had a very good system, with wealthy alumni donating money to their alma mater. The institute had, already back then, a scholarship program for foreign students. I didn’t know about it until I actually got there. It was the time when the exchange rate was 1 dollar = 360 yen. Japanese people could not send much money abroad, so [my family] bought black-market dollars and sent me cash. Still, when I arrived in Chicago, the institute immediately found me a part time job.


Tomii: Who taught photography then?

Sugiura: Among several photography teachers, I was under two teachers, Kenneth Josephson and Frank Barsotti. Both completed their Master’s degrees at ID (Institute of Design) of IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology). When Moholy-Nagy came to America, he established the New Bauhaus. His school went out of business, merged with ITT, and became ID. So he taught at ID, his students included Harry Callahan, under whom Kenneth Josephson and Frank Barsotti studied.


Tomii: I see. What kind of photography did Kenneth Josephson and Frank Barsotti make?

Sugiura: Ken and Frank – that’s what we called them – made very contemporary works, such as conceptual art and sequence photography. [. . .]  The photographer Ishimoto Yasuhiro was two years ahead of them. They revered him so much. [. . .]  At any rate, I received a tremendous education. In the beginning I was not so serious about photography, but once I began, I had a hunch: perhaps this is a field in which I can make something of myself.

Tomii: When I talked with you some time ago, you told me that Kenneth Callahan and those in his generation [. . .] told you, ‘Women should do photo-journalism.’

Sugiura: That was Ken Josephson. [. . .]  He would say, ‘Go out with your camera, go to Michigan Avenue and shoot.’ I followed his instruction, went there, and tried to shoot, but I could not take one shot even though I felt so exhausted. I could not shoot when people were watching me. Then he told me to ‘do a story on a Japanese American’, and found a family. But they were very Japanese, not wanting to show me unfavorable scenes. [...]  It was fine to shoot them eating a good dinner or such, but not okay to shoot them having a fight or something like that. So I could not complete the series. I completely lost confidence at one point. I thought ‘I cannot shoot any photograph.’ I was not good at documentary. However, when the assignment was ‘shoot a sequence’, then, I could just shoot freely. I shot many tries and layered the images, or photographed a toy-like spiral moving. I could do these things. But I immediately knew I could never do documentary photography.

Tomii: You knew immediately.

Sugiura: Ken said, ‘Women should definitely do documentary,’ so I really pushed hard. When I was a senior, Ken went to Stockholm on a teaching exchange program. Frank then began color, asking me to try the color process, which I mastered within a few months.

Tomii: Is the color process difficult?

Sugiura: No, not at all. It just takes time and labor. [. . .]  Instead, you can do various experiments. Say, by doing it without bleach, or thinning or thickening the bleach, you can create different colors. Solarisation can be created by turning on light for a moment while developing the film and forcing the reversal of light and shadow. So many possibilities. Ken might not have allowed me to do these things. He also hated using models in the studio, thinking it ‘too deliberate.’ But Frank was like, ‘anything you like’, letting me do what I wanted to do. He talked to the school and paid for my models. My idea was ‘people in landscape.’ But I could not possibly have nude models in real landscape, so I shot them in studio and started montaging them. I shot trees and such at Lake Michigan. And I combined them.


Ikegami: When Ken Josephson came back, what did he say about these works?

Sugiura: He was very positive about them.



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