Bruce Yonemoto
University of California, Irvine

“It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography.
The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead,
offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture.”
—Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1934)

The premise of North South East West centers on a number of issues surrounding early photographic portraits. My approach invokes Benjamin’s ideas about photography as well as Kao Ga Hiroi—a Japanese expression that means literally “face is broad” or that the person’s stature in society has made their face widely recognized and admired. As a cultural phenomenon Kao Ga Hiroi may be construed as the cult of celebrity, but in my mind it underscores Walter Benjamin’s concept of photographic portraiture as the last refuge of cult value, which is the face as representation of self.

It wasn’t until the release of the incredibly successful television documentary by Ken Burns, The Civil War, that I consciously focused on the power of early portraits used as a tool of audience identification. The poignant faces of young soldiers readying themselves for war evoke emotions that are much deeper than mere photographic documentation. Since all the subjects of Civil War portraits were of white and black soldiers, I decided to revise history as portrayed in the mass mediums of film and television by creating fictional Civil War portraits using young Asian males as subjects. As I researched the historical record, I discovered to my surprise that there were, indeed, soldiers of Asian descent in both the armies of the North and South. I realized that once again people of various racial backgrounds had been systematically excluded from the national record, even by recent revisionist histories.

Many of my past works have focused on the fictionalization of Asian Americans as portrayed in Hollywood cinema, including “Framed” (multi-channel video installation, 1988), and “Environmental” (multi-channel video installation, 1992). I have also created works that juxtapose cultural material from different Asian communities such as the Japanese American and Nipo-Brasiliero communities (“Parana,” 1994, and “The Wedding,” 1999). Since working on film shoots in the 1970s, I have been fascinated by the costume collection held by Western Costume, Hollywood’s oldest costume house. Western Costume’s collection dates back to 1912 (the beginning of cinematic history) and includes Civil War uniforms used in D.W. Griffith’s infamous film, Birth of a Nation. Using these costumes, I wanted to expand the “living” archive of faces to include vulnerable yet proud young Asian males excluded from the historical birth of photography in the United States. North South East West revives the cult value of an identity, which was lost when the history of photography began.