Yasuhiro Wakabayashi, the Japanese-born American photographer known as Hiro died August 15, 2021, at the age of 90 in his country home in Erwinna, Pennsylvania. Best known for his fashion and still life work, Hiro’s surreal vision of glamour established him among giants of the industry including his mentor Richard Avedon.
“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.” Avedon’s words are a testament to Hiro’s extraordinary life, one turned upside down as a child born in Shanghai on November 3, 1930, just one year before Japan invaded Manchuria. One of five children of a Japanese linguist who may have been involved in espionage, Hiro lived a protected life during the better part of World War II, until the battles in the Pacific Theater came to an end.
After being interned for five months in Peking (now Beijing), the family was repatriated to occupied Japan in 1946. A stranger among his own people, Hiro became intrigued by elements of American pop culture in postwar Japan. While paging through glossy fashion magazines at hotels, Hiro discovered the work of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, and soon acquired a camera of his own. In the ruins of imperial Japan, Hiro realized a vision all his own — one that brought the luxurious and quotidian together to create a phantasmagoric spectacle of opulence.
An Asian-American Original
In 1954, Hiro arrived in the United States with one goal: to work with Richard Avedon. After briefly enrolling in the School of Modern Photography in New York, Hiro dropped out and began apprenticing with photographers Lester Bookbinder and Reuben Samberg. By the end of 1956, Hiro achieved his dream: an apprenticeship at the Avedon studio.
The following year, Avedon put in a word with Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director of Harper’s Bazaar, who brought Hiro into the fold, embarking on an 18-year collaboration that would result in some of the most innovative fashion images of the mid-20th century. In 1963, Hiro would become the only photographer working under contract at the magazine, a position he held for the next decade.
In 1969, he earned the title of “Photographer of the Year: from the prestigious American Society of Magazine Photographers for his spellbinding images of fashion, beauty, and accessories. Embracing Brodovitch’s dictum, “If you look in your camera and see something you’ve seen before, don’t click the shutter,” Hiro transformed commercial photography into fine art, crafting fantastical landscapes of the strange, mysterious, and surreal.
“I’ve always admired Hiro,” said Halston, the celebrated American fashion designer at the photographer’s 50th birthday soiree in 1980. “He works in the quietest, most professional manner, and you can always count on him. He’s the greatest still-life photographer in the world.”
A fitting description for the artist who famously draped a ruby and diamond Harry Winston necklace across the hoof of a Black Angus steer. Hiro’s gift for precision applied to every aspect of his work. From concept to execution, Hiro combined unusual lighting, bold colors, and surprising angles to heighten the intensity of his unusual juxtapositions that defied conventional aesthetics.
“Is this man America’s greatest photographer?” asked American Photographer magazine in January 1982, devoting an entire issue to the artist to explore his oeuvre. “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 magazine surmised.
In 1999, Richard Avedon paid homage to his protégé, editing the monograph Hiro: Photographs (Bullfinch), which was chosen by New York Times photo critic Andy Grundberg as one of the best photography books of the year. “Concentration is Hiro’s most obvious quality. When he takes the whole theater of fashion to the beach, he returns with a metaphysical contemplation,” wrote author Mark Holborn in the afterword. “He appears to reduce fashion, like everything he photographs, to a simple but surprising arrangement, so the boundaries between portrait, still-life, and fashion seem to vanish.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.