Mike Risner looks like a cross between the Brawny paper towel guy and a leprechaun on steroids. He's a respected film industry professional with a long list of credits. And thanks to a free ad on Craigslist, he's the unlikely guardian of an L.A. legacy.
Risner admits to being slightly hooked on free stuff. He checks the section a couple of times a day — more if he's not working. He told his son that he was on a mission to find the coolest free thing on Craigslist and, on August 14, he found an offer that got his heart racing: “FREE PHOTOGRAPHY ITEMS. Prints and negatives from the '60s and some other photography stuff free!”
The ad was placed by a contractor who, while clearing out a rental space in Boyle Heights, couldn't bring himself to toss the contents in a dumpster. Risner drove out to the office and found dozens of black, plastic garbage bags filled with proof sheets, negatives, neatly labeled envelopes filled with portraits, baby pictures, wedding parties, graduations, funerals — all or almost all of Japanese-Americans from all over L.A. Thirty years of a photography studio's business was left, waiting for someone like Mike.
Three or four bags had already been picked up by someone else.
Risner crammed as many as he could into his car, went home, unloaded and raced back for more. He started sorting the neatly labeled envelopes, film canisters and loose negatives. Some of the paper envelopes were water-damaged, and some smelled of mold and decay.
The photos turned out to be the work of Elwin Ichiro Ninomiya, who ran Ninomiya Studios in Little Tokyo for about 30 years on First Street, near the Far East Cafe. Across the street was the studio of Toyo Miyatake, famous for taking photographs while interned at Manzanar, and nearby was Jack Iwata, who specialized in editorial work.
Deke Babamoto, who grew up in the neighborhood, recalls: “All of our families have photos taken by one or more of these studios. Ninomiya was just around the corner from the old Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple — now part of the [Japanese American National] Museum — and people would always stop and look into his window to see the latest funny bridal photos and portraits of community leaders and beauty queens.”
Ninomiya died in 2005, at 80. His widow and son are aware that Risner rescued the photos.
Sitting with his free treasure, Risner points out the proud smile of a young man in his U.S. Army uniform (envelope 50-322), the so-corny-it's-cute shot of a bridal couple in the backseat of a two-toned Buick (envelope 52-161), the teenager with a greased ducktail and a leather jacket standing on the left in a group shot (envelope 59-201).
Baby photos spill out of envelopes. Nisei Week beauty queens, all lipstick smiles and teased hair, are stacked into a neat pile.
Only a few years before, these people had been shipped off — leaving their homes, their farms, their jobs, their pets, their friends — to prison camps with unheated barracks, surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by men carrying machine guns because their county was fighting World War II against their ancestral homeland.
After the war, people returned to try to put everything back the way it was. Kinso Ninomiya came back to First Street in Little Tokyo and opened another photo studio. His son, Ichiro, joined him in the business after serving in the military in Korea.
The Ninomiyas took formal portraits and photos marking the important milestones: graduations, weddings, births, anniversaries, deaths and burials. Funeral photos were shot by a Cirkut panoramic camera, which used film strips 3 feet long and 10 inches wide.
Thousands of passport photos are proof of the prosperity of the era, and of a community on the move. Families posed outside tidy split-level ranch houses, with cars, kids, pets and wide smiles, out in the Valley or in Pasadena.
Risner is a big, bearded Irish redhead, and he talks faster when he gets excited. At a Starbucks, he nearly topples the table in his zeal. He's got big plans for the photos: He already has started a blog savingninomiya.blogspot.com and a Facebook page, and scanned many of the photos and negatives and posted them online. He wants to make a documentary and, in so doing, reach out to the families and get them to tell their stories, a project for which he's seeking funds on Kickstarter.
Risner also wants a secure space to store and sort the materials, a scanner and some other odds and ends that would get the envelopes off his living room floor. He wants to donate everything to a suitable archive or museum, but thus far, no cultural institution is able to help, budgets being what they are. However, they say they will be glad to take it all off his hands, once everything is unpacked, sorted, cleaned up and restored.
So he's working the outreach model, meeting with journalists, archivists, community leaders; spreading the word, glad to tell his story to anyone who might know someone who might know someone. He wants to hear the stories behind the photos and to meet the people whose memories he's guarding. People who might not even know that he rescued them from oblivion.