Asakichi “Frank” Kunishige was born in Agenosho, Oshima-gun, Yamaguchi-ken, Japan and emigrated to the U.S. arriving in San Francisco on October 25, 1896. Most of the facts concerning his early life in Japan are unknown. He attended the Illinois College of Photography in Effingham, Illinois from approximately 1911-1913. The college was one of the finest in the country and attracted a number of students from across the world as well as a significant amount of immigrants. After joining the school's camera club, he received recognition in several national publications including Photo-Era which stated in their July, 1912 edition... The College Camera Club held a reception and exhibit at their rooms last week. Mr. F. Kunishige was host for the evening and gave the guests a splendid opinion of Japanese hospitality. In December of that same year he also won a prize in the club's salon. He returned to San Francisco after graduation where he operated a studio on Fillmore Street for several years. After moving to Seattle in 1917, he worked in the darkroom of Edward Curtis and in October of that year, married Ginko Sekiguchi (1894-1981).
By 1919, he had left the Curtis studio and began working for Ella McBride. Around this time, he submitted his artistic work to national competitions such as the 1921 Fourth International Photographic Salon of the Camera Pictorialists of Los Angeles where two of his prints were accepted. The prominent California photographer, Louis Fleckenstein (1866-1942) recognized the superior quality of his work and sought Kunishige’s technical advice, referring to his process as “beautiful and rare”.
It is not known if Kunishige was represented in the first Frederick & Nelson Salon of 1920 but the following year, his work was included in Seattle’s mostly Issei North American Times Exhibition of Pictorial Photographs. A few months later, four of his prints were chosen for the second F&N salon where he was among the five Japanese American contributors selected from one hundred thirty-one exhibitors. By this time, he was quickly becoming recognized as one of the leading photographers in Seattle. He was even recruited by his friend Ella McBride to model for several of her pictorial compositions including an evocative portrait that was exhibited in the 1922 Frederick & Nelson Salon.
As a Founding Member of the SCC in 1924, he used his expert technical skills to develop the negatives and prints for many of his colleagues. He also manufactured a printing out paper called “Textura Tissue” along with a compatible toning solution that he sold nationally through his Seattle studio.
During the 1920’s, Kunishige’s work was included in many prominent international exhibitions including those of the Royal Photographic Society, London; the Pittsburgh Salon; the Buffalo Salon; the Paris Salon; and numerous others.
From 1925 through 1929, he was consistently listed among the most exhibited Pictorialist photographers in the world. His work was illustrated in national and international publications including Photofreund, Berlin;
American Annual of Photography; The Years Photography, London and Photo-Era, where he won several competitions and awards including five Honorable Mentions between 1925-1926.
Unlike many SCC members, he supported himself financially as a photographer. Through his employment with McBride’s studio, he produced portraits and completed commercial commissions for clients such as Cornish College of the Arts, the Bon Marche department store, the Seattle Fine Arts Society and the Art Institute of Seattle where he photographed paintings and other works for regional and international artists exhibiting in Seattle. He also produced two photo essays for the University of Washington’s yearbook, The Tyee in 1929 and 1931.
Although he produced several accomplished landscapes, his urban and figural compositions illustrate his talent at its finest. His depictions of Seattle’s architectural landmarks and interiors are infused with a moody and poetic atmosphere with extraordinary tonal variations. One of the aspects of his work that distinguishes him from his fellow SCC members is his frequent use of the nude or partially clad figure. His male and female subjects, in solitary poses or sometimes in pairs, are arranged either in a studio composition or set against the lush landscape of Seattle’s numerous parks. They are often tinged with erotic and suggestive voyeuristic elements. It is interesting to note that he rarely used Asian models in his figure studies, especially the nudes.
A few of his works also contain ambiguous gender references such as “Masculine Dancer” which depicts a female figure and “Traumerie” whose subject is a mysterious combination of both sexes of an indiscernible race. One of his most unusual works, “Poppy Dreams” depicts an androgynous Caucasian figure dressed in traditional Chinese clothing and confronting the viewer through the suggestion of an opium-induced stupor.
Often overlooked are his still-life’s which owe less to a standard pictorial vision but instead display more modern and sometimes disturbing qualities. His closely observed and highly scrutinized studies of flowers or other inanimate objects usually refer more to the abstract design elements of the subjects rather than trying to convey their inherent natural beauty
Kunishige’s first known solo exhibition was at the Commercial Club in Seattle from June 28 –30th, 1924 where 70 of his prints were displayed. His next large exhibition in Seattle was held at the Japanese Chamber of Commerce from November 16 – 18, 1940. In this retrospective assembly he displayed 80 prints (which included five, two-color straight prints) on twenty separate panels. Many of the prints in this exhibition were made from earlier negatives and contain variations in cropping and tonal values. Most of these works are now housed in the collection of the Seattle Public Library.
Like his fellow Nikkei SCC members, Kunishige and his wife were detained at the Puyallup Assembly Center before being transferred to Minidoka in Idaho.
After their release, the Kunishige’s remained in Idaho where he was employed in a Twin Falls photography studio doing commercial work. He held a few exhibitions of his artistic photography in Idaho; one on Sunday, July 15, 1945 at the home of Mrs. Emma Clouchek and another on February 19, 1946 at the 20th Century Club. The local press reviewing the show stated that the photographs were created in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other coastal towns and the titles given were those of his earlier works indicating that he did not produce many new works past the 1930’s.
He returned to Seattle by 1950 where he and his wife shared a duplex with painter Kenjiro Nomura (1896-1956) and his family. Nomura’s son George recalled that Mr. Kunishige was very unhealthy and spent most of his hours bedridden. Apparently a young man who was learning the photography trade also lived with the Kunishige’s during this time.
Frank Kunishige remained in Seattle until his death in 1960. He had no children.
What remained of his work and archive was donated to the Seattle Public Library and the University of Washington Libraries which contains the bulk of his estate. This donation came through the estate of fellow SCC member Iwao Matsushita who had married Ginko Kunishige after the deaths of their respective spouses. Gin Kunishige died in 1981 following complications from a stroke.