An Interview with Yosh Inouye
by David Fujino
In the mid-1970s into the 1990s, photographer Yosh Inouye ran a successful studio in the middle of a thriving Toronto advertising scene where his specialty was table-top photography. This native of Gifu, Japan, first arrived in Toronto in 1968, with training from Tama Art School (1960-1962) and Kuwazawa Design School (1962-1964) under his belt. His first Canadian job was as a photographer’s assistant at Sam Yamada´s photo studio. Sam was a notable figure in the Toronto community because he’d taken pictures and portraits of many JC families in the post-internment years. In 1983, Yosh’s career as an instructor of photography began at Sheridan College in Oakville and culminated in his teaching in the digital photography and design department at George Brown College in Toronto from 1998 to 2006. However, what has always distinguished Yosh — for me — is his interest in the community’s Sansei artists and political activists. For an Issei, this is unusual. For starters, there’s always the difference in language to contend with — the English of the Sansei and Yosh’s Japanese — but this didn’t bother Yosh. He had his own opinions and clearly preferred to put his energy and talents into groups whose goals he agreed with. Simple and direct. Around 1978, Yosh kindly contributed a black and white group photograph of Annex visitors for its press kits and publicity packages. The Annex was a drop-in centre on the Danforth for a broad range of Japanese: some were born in Japan, many were born in Canada, and they ranged from young and old, men and women. Now it’s 2013, and Yosh has been working with Ken Noma to produce and install Toronto NAJC display panels in public spaces like the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. He’s always up to something. Ever since the late 70s, Yosh has often functioned as a kind of nee-san, an older brother to students of photography and Toronto-area Nikkei artists. Recently, we sat down and had a talk.
Are you a happy person?
I am — positively. I am not afraid of what is coming. I have had regular PSA tests, and this year I think I’ll cancel my December appointment with the specialist. I accept my life — it makes it easier to live. This way, I don’t have to worry, and I don’t have regrets. I have no ambition to be rich or famous: just live a simple life. Whatever happens, happens. You can live with cancer, but not necessarily will you die from cancer.
Did you learn a lot at Tama Art School and Kuwazawa Design School?
Yes, I think I did. I’m glad I went to those two schools. I learned photography at Tama Art School and I learned graphic design at Kuwazawa Design School. I met a number of great teachers at these schools. It’s not so much what I learned technically: these teachers influenced me in my life. They weren’t technical teachers as much as life skills teachers. Technical things I can learn by myself, but I learned from them how they looked at life. Later on in life, I can see they have influenced the direction and kind of life I’ve led.
Have you always been a competitive guy?
Yes, up until recently. I’m not a competitive person any more. My testosterone level has dropped as I’ve aged, and that calms me down, and I’m more at peace.
Do you follow the work of today’s commercial tabletop photographers?
No, not at all.
What qualities should a person have if s/he’s going to be successful in commercial photography?
A combination of competitiveness and sensitivity. Competitiveness alone doesn’t make you successful. You have to be a sensitive person. You have to be sensitive to art but you also have to be sensitive to other people — and you have to be able to listen to what others say. The art of listening is very important in being successful.
Please explain the importance of ‘archiving’ our family photographs and letters?
I’m interested in archiving … because we learn a lot from old documents. If they’re not archived, we lose them forever. We should leave archived materials for the next generation. Instead of seeing only what’s happening today, the next generation can read archived material and enrich their lives.
So, you’re a ‘vegan’ — someone who doesn’t eat meat or seafood? When and why did you become a vegan?
I just became vegan on August 1st of 2012. I’m not religiously vegan, but I try not to eat meat as much as possible. After I saw a video about how the animals we eat are treated and processed, and how physically cruel it is … I don’t distinguish between pets — like a dog or a pig — and a food source; I just can’t eat it.
Who are some of your photographic influences?
I have lots of photographic influences. Shomei Tomatsu and Bill Brandt are the most influential.
Are you a patient person?
I am. Very much.
What do you think about the technical changes in photography — I mean the change from film to digital and Photoshop?
Commercially, the technical change from analog to digital was a huge influence on our industry (commercial photography). Content-wise, it is not a big influence. I even feel digital photography degrades content; it seems we haven’t digested new technology yet: it is too easy to shoot impressive- looking photographs. Digital photography makes it much easier to capture sharp, vividly colourized images. There’s so many pretty pictures, but few pictures move me. It takes time to be selective in what you photograph.
You seem to be a practical man — are you?
Yes, I am.
How much of a businessman are you?
I was a good businessman. I started noticing that if I were a poor businessman I could have become an artist. But my ability to make money sidetracked me into business rather than becoming an artist. I enjoyed making money because I was successful. I still do not regret my career path. I’d probably do the same things even if I had a second chance.
Looking back, would you do anything differently?
No, I wouldn’t.