Hiro Wakabayashi, 1930-2021

·3 min read

Legendary photographer Yasuhiro Wakabayashi, known as "Hiro," the man whose fashion photography revolutionized the medium as an art form and defined the aesthetic of a generation, died this week at the age of 90.

Though the son of Japanese parents, Hiro was born in Shanghai, China, in 1930, one year before the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. He and his family eventually repatriated to Japan in 1946, but it wasn’t long after that he relocated to New York City. There, Hiro became an apprentice to Richard Avedon, whose iconic and exclusively black-and-white photography brought a new facet to fashion photography: stark portraiture that bordered on the surreal and often showed celebrities and other high-profile figures as they were, not gilded by fashion editors.

By 1956, Hiro had become a staff photographer for the fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar, where he remained until the mid-1970s. He opened his own New York studio in 1958, just months after the untimely death of fashion icon Christian Dior. A decade earlier, Dior had debuted his “New Look,” which was a strikingly architectural approach to fashion that emphasized the female figure by casting it in dresses designed to accentuate a “figure eight,” with pronounced shoulders and hips and a tiny waist. Dior's simple silhouettes dominated the fashion and art world just as Hiro was coming of age into it.

Hiro, similar to his mentor Avedon, dealt in stark, clean images with elements of the surreal. One collector described his work as a “simple but elegant design with sophisticated technique and striking color.”

“A diamond-and-ruby Harry Winston necklace draped on the hoof of a Black Angus steer. A pyramid of Cartier watches set in a luminous lunar landscape of vivid green and shocking blue. A mysterious woman in the dunes at twilight, floating like a ghost off the ground in a windblown black nightgown,” wrote the New York Times’s Robert D. McFadden in a description of Hiro's most famous images. His work was more “brilliant and infinitely more beautiful than reality.”

Beyond simply beautiful, Hiro's photography is known for its precision: light, lines, objects all precisely placed and measured to create works reminiscent of surrealist artists such as Salvador Dali and Renee Magritte. The effect was something phantasmagorical but adamantly, elegantly real.

His life itself was surreal. His father was a Japanese linguist living in Shanghai putatively for the purpose of creating a Japanese-Chinese dictionary. However, the New York Times noted in Hiro’s obituary, his father might have actually been a spy. Following the end of World War II, Hiro and his family returned home to a changed, and occupied, Japan reeling in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Amid that chaos, Hiro became “fascinated with Jeeps, Red Fox beer cans and other artifacts of American culture.” He collected fashion magazines and saved for a camera, honing his skills until he could travel to the United States, where he worked entry-level jobs until he was able to score the coveted New York apprenticeship with Avedon.

He became an American citizen in 1990.

Hiro eventually became so influential in fashion photography that American Photographer dedicated an issue entirely devoted to Hiro's work, provocatively asking, “Is this man America’s greatest photographer?”

“Hiro stands as one of the pre-eminent photographers of his adopted country," the 1982 magazine said. “With the pragmatic brilliance of a Renaissance master, Hiro has changed the way photographs look, and with an endlessly inventive technique has changed the way photographers work.”

Yasuhiro Wakabayashi is survived by his wife, designer Elizabeth Clark, two sons, and several grandchildren, as well as a remarkable body of work that will continue to live on far after.

Emily Zanotti is the managing editor of the Daily Wire.

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Tags: Obituaries, Arts, Fashion, Japan

Original Author: Emily Zanotti

Original Location: Hiro Wakabayashi, 1930-2021