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19 August 2021

Yasuhiro Wakabayashi, the Japanese-American photographer known as Hiro, died on Sunday at his country home in Erwinna, Pa. He was 90.

After an apprenticeship with Richard Avedon won him a recommendation to Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar, he wowed the fashion world with his meticulous and imaginative still lifes for decades.

He was born in Shanghai in 1930 just before the Japanese invaded Manchuria, the son of a Japanese linguist suspected of being a spy. His father ostensibly was there to compile a Japanese-Chinese dictionary but the family home was also a rendezvous site for late night meetings of strangers.

The family, which included five children, escaped China when the Sino-Japanese War began in 1937 but returned a few months later with the victorious Japanese Army. They were subsequently interned in Beijing as World War II came to an end, returning to occupied Japan afterwards.

There he attended high school in Tokyo enamored with Americana. He tutored Americans in Japanese and, in return, scoured their fashion magazines, becoming enthralled with the work of both Avedon and Irving Penn.

'I try to be creative even when I eat.'

He bought a camera to emulate them, photographing postwar Japan and discovering a penchant for still life that mixed the exotic with the pedestrian, making the pedestrian more attractive.

In 1954 he left Japan for California, hoping to work for Avedon. For two years he took entry-level jobs with commercial photographers Lester Bookbinder and Reuben Samberg before winning an apprenticeship with the Avedon studio in New York.

Avedon was impressed with his apprentice enough to recommend him to Harper Bazaar's art director as his own successor when he left to follow Diana Vreeland to Vogue. And for the next 18 years, Hiro worked at the fashion title as a staff photographer. Hiro became the only photographer under contract at the magazine in 1963, a post he held until 1973 when he opened his own studio. He continued his association with the publication as a freelancer working from his own studio where he also worked on commission from Vogue and other magazines.

"Hiro is no ordinary man," Avedon said. "He is one of the few artists in the history of photography. He is able to bring his fear, his isolation, his darkness, his splendid light to film."

In 1959 he married Elizabeth Clark, who was a set designer. The couple had two sons, Greogry and Hiro Clark. All three survive him, along with four grandchildren and a younger sister in Japan.

His star continued to rise in 1969 when he was named Photographer of the Year by the American Society of Magazine Photographers and in 1982 when American Photographer devoted the January issue to him. "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," the publication saluted him.

Hiro also shot celebrity portraits, including the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune in 1966, the Rolling Stones in 1976 and the writer Robert Penn Warren in 1978. His portrait of the Stones for their Black and Blue album cover is itself as legendary as the band.

His photograph of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission launch with spectators silhouetted in the foreground was published by Harper's Bazaar as Portrait of Humanity on its editorial page after the publication had initially declined to commission the project.

In 1990, he became a naturalized American citizen.

"Let's say I am a creative person. I get bored easily," Hiro once explained his approach to photography. "I try to be creative even when I eat. I've eaten snake. I will try anything once."

His work has been published in three monographs and is included in the permanent collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, N.Y., and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among many others.

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