Soichi Sunami was born in Okayama, Japan on February 18, 1885. He emigrated to the United States in 1905 and arrived in Seattle on February 24, 1907. He became interested in photography as a young art student when he was part of a group of young Issei modern artists in Seattle who studied under Fokko Tadama. These included Yasushi Tanaka, Toshi Shimizu, Kenjiro Nomura, and Kamekichi Tokita, all of whom had successful careers as painters. Tadama was a Dutch immigrant who was born in Bandar, in the region of Palembang, Sumatra (Indonesia), and was active with the art colony at Egmond-Binnen before his arrival in Seattle in 1910.
Initially, Sunami’s primary aspiration was to become a painter, and he became an active member of the Seattle Art Club. It is not known how he became interested in photography, but he was working in the medium at the same time that he was producing paintings and sculpture. By 1918 he was living in Tacoma, where he worked as a cook, but shortly thereafter he returned to Seattle and found employment in Ella McBride’s studio. In the December 17, 1921, issue of The Town Crier, he expressed his frustration over the inadequacies of his technical abilities as a painter: “I often have the wish to put down on canvas my idea of life. My mind is willing but often my hand is weak. I then turn to the camera, the lens my brush, the plate my canvas, and God’s sun draws my mind’s picture much better than my hand can do.”
Sunami exhibited in the first Frederick & Nelson Salon in 1920, where he was one of only a few regional artists to be presented with an award. The following years, he participated in the North American Times Exhibition of Pictorial Photographs represented by six works. A few months later, he was awarded two additional prizes in the Frederick & Nelson Salon. In 1922, he moved to New York City to pursue his art studies. Upon his arrival, Sunami attempted to earn a living by going door to door in search of portrait commissions. But soon afterward, he began working in the studio of famed photographer Nickolas Muray to maintain an income. Still determined to be a painter, he enrolled at the Art Students League, where he studied under John Sloan and others. In New York, he exhibited eight paintings with the Society of Independent Artists between 1925 and 1931. His painting depicting Union Square was accepted in the 1925 Salons of America exhibition. In, 1927, Sunami participated in the First Annual Exhibition of paintings and Sculpture by Japanese Artists in New York. His Seattle friend Toshi Shimizu, who had relocated to New York, was included in the exhibition as well.
Because of his endearing personality and the high quality of his photography, Sunami was always considered a peer among his fellow artists, even though his success as a painter was limited. Although he moved to the East Coast, he maintained his contacts in the Pacific Northwest and exhibited with the Seattle Camera Club (SCC) in 1926, where his single entry was a portrait of artist Walter Kethmiller. The following year, he exhibited a chloride photograph titled Claire de Lune in the third SCC annual. According to his widow, Soichi Sunami, like Fred Yutaka Ogasawara, was an out-of-state member of the SCC. After opening his first commercial studio on Fifteenth Street, off of Fifth Avenue in New York, he began a five-year collaboration with renowned dancer Martha Graham, producing some of the most striking early images of the iconic dancer.
Along with several of his Seattle friends, Sunami was included in the First International Photographic Salon of Japan, where he exhibited two chloride prints: the aforementioned portrait of Kethmiller and another title Danse Languide, which was reproduced on the cover of Notan on October 14, 1927. That same year, his Kethmiller portrait was published in The American Annual of Photography, where he shared the pages with Frank Kunishige, Hiromu Kira, Hideo Onishi, and Yukio Morinaga. The annual also included two studies of the ballet dancer Anna Pavlova by Sunami’s mentors, Wayne Albee and Ella McBride, along with work by his New York employer Nickolas Muray.
Interacting with some of the finest painters and printmakers in New York, Sunami used his talents to photograph his friends and their works of art for various professional purposed. He worked with several of the leading art galleries of the period as a commercial photographer, including Edith Halperts’s highly influential Downtown Gallery, the Pierre Matisse Gallery, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. His occupation was secured by 1930, when Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. asked him to work with the recently opened Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). For the next thirty-eight years, he produced more than twenty thousand large-format negatives for the archives of this important museum.
In 1945, he married Suyeko Matsushima (1914-2007) of Bainbridge Island, Washington, who was then living in New York and working as a pharmacist. Before her marriage, Suyeko was interned at Tule Lake in northern California. She later recalled that, although Sunami was living on the East Coast during World War II and therefore not subject to internment, he deliberately burned a number of his earlier works, including all of his nude studies, for fear of repercussion from the government. He became an American citizen on August 5, 1957, and died on November 12, 1971, in New York City. His wife and two children survived him.
Besides his collection at MOMA, the New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, contains many excellent examples of Sunami’s numerous dance studies.