Yasuhiro Wakabayashi, the Japanese-American photographer known as Hiro, whose fashion and still life images captured a relentlessly inventive vision of American life that critics compared to that of his idol and mentor, Richard Avedon, died Sunday at his mansion in Erwinna, Pa. He was 90.
The death was confirmed by his son, Gregory Wakabayashi.
A diamond-and-ruby Tiffany necklace draped on the hoof of a Black Angus ox. A pyramid of Cartier watches in a luminous lunar landscape of vibrant green and shocking blue. A mysterious woman in the dunes at dusk, floating like a ghost from the ground in a windblown black nightgown. It was the stuff of fashion advertising dreams: more brilliant and infinitely more beautiful than reality.
If Hiro’s photos often seemed surreal, it might be because his early life had been so unreal.
Born in Shanghai a year before Japanese troops invaded Manchuria, he came of age in the turmoil of World War II in China, the son of a prominent Japanese linguist who may have been a spy. His family was interned in Beijing (now Beijing) late in the war and returned home in 1946 to an occupied Japan in ruins.
He attended a high school in Tokyo but was a stranger in his own country, fascinated by Jeeps, Red Fox beer cans and other artifacts of American culture. He read American fashion magazines in hotels and the homes of American officers whom he tutored in Japanese, and became fascinated with the work of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. He bought a camera and photographed his broken world.
In his early twenties, he had an insight: that photos juxtaposing the mundane and the exotic can transform an ordinary object into something desirable—and salable. Its practical application was fashionable. But fascinating surprises such as gems on a cow’s hoof or a ghostly nightgown, he later realized, can also appear in a still life, a model portrait or an action shot of a cockfight.
In 1954, he reached California with a daring plan to work for Mr. Avedon, the legendary fashion photographer who portrayed models in nightclubs and roller-skating the Place de la Concorde. Two years later, after an entry-level job with two commercial photographers, he was apprenticed to the Avedon studio in New York.
Hiro soon showed his innovative ideas to the boss. In 1957, Mr. Avedon recommended him to Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar. This began an 18-year partnership with one of the country’s leading fashion magazines as a staff photographer and, after opening his own studio, as a freelancer receiving assignments from Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and other magazines.
Within a few years, Hiro was a star in fashion photography. In 1969 he was named Photographer of the Year by the American Society of Magazine Photographers. The American Photographer magazine devoted an entire issue to him in January 1982, asking, “Is this man America’s greatest photographer?”
“Avedon’s judgment was inspired,” according to The American Photographer. “Twenty-five years later, Hiro stands as one of the foremost photographers of his adopted country. With the pragmatic brilliance of a Renaissance master, Hiro has changed the look of photographs and with an endlessly inventive technique the way photographers work.”
Moving beyond fashion, Hiro shot celebrity portraits, including Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune in 1966, the Rolling Stones in 1976, and writer Robert Penn Warren in 1978.
He once managed to visually convey the aura of perfume with the surreal image of a reclining female face in profile against a sea-and-sky background. He did it with a fumarole of cigarette smoke escaping from her lips.
One of his landscapes depicted the Navajo Generating Station in Lake Powell, Arizona, in 1977, with a huge plume of smoke being flattened in the sky by airborne wind currents.
In 1969, Hiro asked Harper’s Bazaar to let him photograph the launch of the Apollo 11 lunar mission from Florida, but he recalled being told, “We’re not a science magazine.” He shot the launch anyway. His effigy captured the fiery eruption, with onlookers silhouetted in the glow of creation. It was on the editorial page of the magazine and on an opposite page with the caption “Portrait of Humanity.”
In 1981, he shot a staged cockfight. The battle on film was a succession of explosive lunges: purple, black, gold, and scarlet feathers flying as the birds leaped, feinted and lashed out with claws. But the reality was not a dance of death. Handlers withdrew the birds before any damage could be done, and the disturbed fighters went home to fight another day.
Two of his most strikingly surreal images were of women’s feet, taken on a beach. One was an enlargement of a big toenail, manicured and painted fire truck red. At the top sat a small black ant, like an explorer who had just climbed a mountaintop. The second showed a sole of the foot resting horizontally on small round stones that mimicked the toes. Crawling over the heel was a tarantula.
In the fall of 1980, a crowd of friends and acquaintances gathered at a restaurant on the Manhattan skyline to celebrate Hiro’s 50th birthday. “I’ve always admired Hiro,” says Halston, the designer. “He works in the quietest, most professional way and you can always count on him. He is the greatest still life photographer in the world.”
Yasuhiro Wakabayashi was born in Shanghai on November 3, 1930, as one of five children of Japanese parents who officially resided in China because his learned father was compiling a Japanese-Chinese dictionary. He may also have been a secret agent for Tokyo: In the late 1930s, young Yasuhiro saw strangers arrive unexpectedly late at night and leave early in the morning.
He was six when the Sino-Japanese War began in 1937. He recalled the unrest among foreign families in Shanghai when Imperial Japanese troops invaded the city. Hours after hostilities broke out, the Wakabayashis flew home to Japan. Months later, they were back in China in the wake of the victorious Japanese army; they spent the rest of the war in Japanese-occupied Beijing.
The family lived in a civilian compound, and Yasuhiro attended Japanese schools. He was 14 when American bombers destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs in 1945.
Soon his family’s protected life ended. They were interned in China for five months and repatriated to Japan in 1946. From 1946 to 1949, he attended high school in Tokyo and emigrated to America five years later.
In 1959, he married Elizabeth Clark, a set designer. The couple had two sons, Gregory and Hiro Clark. His wife and sons survive him, along with four grandchildren and a younger sister who lives in Japan.
Hiro never returned to Japan. In 1990 he was naturalized as a US citizen. He lived in Manhattan, where he had a studio.
He has exhibited in galleries in New York and London. His work is in the permanent collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
It has also appeared in many books, including “Hiro: Photographs,” compiled by Mr. Avedon and cited by Andy Grundberg in NewsMadura Book Review as one of the best photography books of 1999. “Hiro was a bright star in fashion. photography in the late ’60s and early ’70s, then almost disappeared,” wrote Mr. Grundberg. “This sumptuous summary of his career to date is a salutary reminder that talent and fame are not synonymous.”