A good photographer friend of mine once said to me “well, I’m sure it’s the same for you, we only do assignments so we get sent places and then once there we can take other pictures for ourselves”. I agreed. Sometimes the only reason to accept a photo assignment is in the hope that around the assignment, at the sides, before or after it, in the location, you’ll find something more interesting or more of use to yourself than the assignment photographs. The assignments are sometimes an excuse, an excuse to see something, or to experience something.
This week one of my assignments here in Tokyo offered me such an opportunity. It wasn’t a bad assignment, a new client, a friendly client by email. And the job wasn’t a bad one by any means, far from it, I had to shoot a portrait of the American Ambassador to Japan, John V. Roos. A nice job for a new client, excellent. But what was going to be great about this Tokyo job was the chance to see something and go somehwere I’d never been, even in my years here, and somewhere to which access is usually incredibly difficult. And somewhere I may not get the chance to go again.
I was going to get the chance to shoot the portrait inside the US Ambassador’s residence here in Tokyo, a building from which the bricks and mortars could tell many an important and fascinating story. An historical building.
I reported at the alloted time to the gate, got my I.D. checked, got escorted along the drive way. Drive way, this is a house in downtown Tokyo. The drive way was nicely lined each side by trees, and culminated at the end in a mini-roundabout for cars to turn. To the right a low building, white’ish in colour on the exterior. Big doors, metal canopy over them.
And so I entered, along with the journalist, and the Press Officer. I was keen to see inside, and sure enough it didn’t disappoint. Over there portraits of George Washington, or some china bowls with American scenes and seals on them, and here above the sofa on the wooden wall a picture of Benjamin Franklin. The Franklin portrait looked from where I sat in the library like a sumptuous fibre based print photograph, but timelines suggest it wasn’t. Did you know Franklin visit Scotland in 1759, to Edinburgh ? But I digress. There was modern art, blocks of colour, vases, a Yoko Ono “Peace tree”.
All around there was history, and photographs and portraits, some photos of President Obama smiling, gripping, grinning, and there was Hilary, and others.
But there was one photograph I was particulary interested in, one which wasn’t on display but I was curious about. A picture of General Douglas MacArthur meeting for the first time the Showa Emperor, Hirohito of Japan, in 1945. I wasn’t sure where exactly it had been taken, was it in this building, or was it in the Dai-Ichi Seimei Insurance building which was Allied (SCAP) GHQ in 1945 ? I was curious to see the spot where the photo had been taken. It’d prove nothing. Change nothing. But I was curious, after all isn’t this one of the reasons to use a camera, to get in places we can’t usually go ? The camera as passport, as a key to open doors. So, I asked the Press Officer, he’d know. But he wasn’t sure, he thought it was this building, the house we were in, but wasn’t sure which room.
So then the assignment take splace, the main reason for being there. Into the library room, interview, photographs, portrait, questions, glass of water, 30 minutes, dark as hell, high ISO, “last question please”, “you’ve 5 minutes left”, “thanks for coming”.
And then in the post-interview chit chat the question of MacArthur and Showa Emperor picture came up. And yes, the Ambassador had done his homework. “Yes, it was over here”, and we ambled into the large reception room to our right. A large room, air con was on, nice and cool, lots of sofas, chairs, big tables, an American flag, a fireplace, orange lights, lots of bay windows. “They stood over there” we were told, “between those curtains”. And there it was, the spot where the controversial photo was taken of General MacArthur and the Showa Emperor, one with hands on hips, open necked shirt, casual, tall, and the other, upright, stiff, formal, full suit. One the victor, one the defeated.
To read about the meeting between MacArthur and the Emperor check out this page, which quotes from MacArthurs autobiography. (scroll down to Note 4).
The photograph was taken by U.S. Army photographer Lt. Gaetano Faillace. It was one of three frames he took, in the first MacArthur closed his eyes, in the second the Emperor spoke, the third frame is the one we know. I wonder how Faillace felt that day in that room, wonder how the exposure was then, how was his Speed Graphic to use, what film, how long to process it and send it out ? Another few days (Sept 27th) and it will be 65 years to the day of the occasion of the taking of that photo.
To read more about U.S. Army photographer Lt. Gaetano Faillace follow this link to an little magazine pdf from ‘Captions- The International Combat Camera Association‘.