Hiro obituary | Fashion photography

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The biggest surprise in pictures by the photographer Hiro from the 1960s and 70s isn’t their unprecedented imagery, but that those images were hand-crafted from photography’s primary elements. He used light adjusted to the millimetre, especially to cast famous faces into shadow; calibrated shutter speed to the millisecond; and employed colour filters, multiple exposures for kinetic effect, and limitless patience in the darkroom, to composite his imaginings. He also wrangled live owls and ants and fish, and difficult top models, into posing in the peculiar ways he needed. His influence can be seen in much current fashion photography, but with the effects now digitally achieved, without Hiro’s planning or wild spontaneity.

Hiro – abbreviated from Yasuhiro Wakabayashi – who has died aged 90, was a photographer before, and very long after, his decades in fashion, but it was his experimental shots of the early 1960s, especially for jewellery ads, that transformed the way those luxuries have been viewed since, as sculptures in a landscape, or witty props. Anything could and would be introduced – a steer’s hoof embellished with rubies, an owl (fed a live mouse to ensure its cooperation) bemused by a bejewelled frog. Post-Hiro, that was a norm.

An Elsa Peretti gold cuff modelled on a bone, with ladybird. Hiro never used digital enhancement to produce his sublime images.
An Elsa Peretti gold cuff modelled on a bone, with ladybird, 1984. Hiro never used digital enhancement to produce his sublime images. Photograph: Hiro/c/o Hamilton Gallery in New York

Hiro’s take on glamour was about mood, a state of mind – he allowed models a visible inner life – rather than the grand narratives of social context that dominated magazines from the late 40s through the 50s. His use of colour was bolder than Erwin Blumenfeld’s, and, supported by new printing inks, made for punchy magazine covers. His beauty shots, which focused on foot or face, were more tactile than Irving Penn’s; the toes Hiro shot for a Vogue podiatric feature touch rough warm stones and slithy octopus tentacles, and you feel their textures with your eyes.

Hiro’s route to becoming a great, though undersung, American photographer was more surprising than his pictures, and its darkness and privations underlaid his imagination. He was born in Shanghai, where his academic father was compiling a Chinese-Japanese dictionary, and possibly spying for his native Japan. His parents and four siblings lived there until Japanese troops invaded the city in 1937, when they were forwarded to occupied Peking (now Beijing). There, the boy attended a military-controlled school until, at 14, he was drafted into Japan’s army of occupation in its last, most brutal, phase. After the Japanese surrender, the family were interned, then returned to Tokyo, where a million people were homeless after the US bombing raid firestorm of March 1945. The Wakabayashis had $3 and the things they carried. They dug a trench, roofed it with corrugated iron, and that was home.

Self Portrait, 1990, by Hiro. The darkness and privations of his early life underlaid his imagination.
Self Portrait, 1990, by Hiro. The darkness and privations of his early life underlaid his imagination. Photograph: Hiro/c/o Hamilton Gallery in New York

Hiro got more schooling, but, like other Japanese during the US occupation, his real education was in American culture, unusually through the photographs in glossy magazines discarded by guests in US hotels where he worked, or by the wives of officers to whom he taught Japanese. All Americans seemed to have cameras, and Hiro acquired one, his subject the weirdness of his reviving city. His dreams were of the US, chiefly of style as photographed by Richard Avedon. After years of devout saving, and despite family disapproval, in 1954 he took passage to Los Angeles, then bussed across the continent to New York, determined to work for Avedon.

That actually happened, within two years. Hiro quickly dropped out of photography school (he already had a unique point of view) and worked as a gofer to commercial photographers before the Avedon Studio offered him an apprenticeship. This did not last long because Avedon saw that his pupil was already a full original, and in 1957 persuaded his own commissioning editor, Alexey Brodovitch, the Harper’s Bazaar art director, to use the newbie’s work. Avedon and Hiro shared a studio for years as equals and Hiro succeeded Avedon as lead photographer at Harper’s in 1963. They were never rivals, both freelancing round the town after Hiro set up his own studio. Avedon remained Hiro’s No 1 fan and promoter.

Fashion paid well, notably jewellery ads: Hiro shot his friend Elsa Peretti’s designs for Tiffany’s for almost 40 years until 2020. But from the mid-80s to 2001, when he returned intermittently to Harper’s, and collaborated with cosmetic companies and stores willing to grant him visual licence, his adventurous abstraction was out of fashion, too subtle and introverted for a world of raw bling, branding and supermodels. In the 90s, magazines often reverted to cataloguing enviable goods, as they had done before the 40s revolt of Avedon and Penn.

Hiro used a live owl for his shot of a piece of David Webb jewellery in 1963 ©HIRO
Hiro used a live owl for his shot of a piece of David Webb jewellery in 1963. Photograph: Hiro/c/o Hamilton Gallery in New York

Hiro’s spontaneous side enjoyed reportage, although the results often look polished; when Harper’s refused his offer to cover the Apollo 11 moon shot in 1969, he went to Florida anyway and shot near-abstracts in the light of the blast. Harper’s gave its editorial pages over to the best. (He loved space, and his picture of a rack of astronaut training suits, cramped tight as if already in a capsule, is an enduring Nasa image.)

He also did tranquil celebrity portraits, and technically accomplished images for gallery sale, no day passing without a shot taken. Hiro could go into a picture so deeply that Avedon described him as sitting immobile for hours looking at a print, as if in Zen meditation.

Hiro’s return visits to Japan were few, camera in hand, and he became a naturalised US citizen in 1990. He married Elizabeth Clark, a set designer, in 1959, and she, their sons, Gregory and Hiro, and a sister, survive him.

Hiro (Yasuhiro Wakabayashi), photographer, born 3 November 1930; died 15 August 2021

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