Jun Fujita thought of himself first as a poet and an artist. He wrote Japanese poetry in the form known as tanka and took exquisite black-and-white landscape and flower photos in the Indiana dunes. But he’s best known today as an early photojournalist who covered many of Chicago’s most important and violent news events in the early decades of the 20th century.
Jun Fujita: Oblivion is an exhibit of his work and life at the Poetry Foundation. Fujita’s tanka poetry was published in Poetry magazine in the 1920s. One of the items in the exhibit is a letter about his work from Harriet Monroe, who founded Poetry Magazine in 1912.
Also featured is a bound typewritten manuscript of his work, with typographic markups (“14 on 16 Granjon – 21 (picas) wide” for my fellow typographic nerds). A collection of his work—Tanka: Poems in Exile—was published by Covici-McGhee in 1923. Tanka poems are similar to haiku in format, but have five lines. Fujita’s tankas had four lines.
The November sky without a star
Droops low over the midnight street;
On the pale pavement, cautiously
A leaf moves.
The most stirring parts of the exhibit are Fujita’s news and art photographs. He was an early practitioner of photojournalism and was hired in 1914 by the Chicago Evening Post (it later became the Chicago Daily News) to take news photos. He became known for his iconic photos of the Eastland disaster in the Chicago River and also photographed the Chicago race riots of 1919, the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929, and the Leopold-Loeb trial in 1924, as well as the construction of the Michigan avenue bridge in 1920. He gained a national reputation and was hired by the WPA to take photos at projects such as a soil erosion project in Wisconsin in 1935 and the Triborough Bridge in New York in 1938. He photographed famous people such as Al Capone, Carl Sandburg and Albert Einstein.
Fujita was born near Hiroshima, Japan, in 1888 and emigrated to Canada at 17. He worked as a laborer and did odd jobs there, saving money to move to the U.S. four years later. He arrived in Chicago and attended Wendell Phillips High School, a predominantly African-American school, graduating at the age of 25. One of the exhibit photos is the Phillips graduating class with Fujita sitting first row center.
He briefly worked as an actor in some films produced by Chicago’s Essanay Studios, mostly playing small parts. Fujita met journalist Florence Carr at a poetry society meeting. They were together for many years but could not marry because of miscegenation laws. They finally married in 1940 when he was 53 and she 46. They lived in Chicago and had a house in the Indiana dunes. He also owned a cabin on Rainy Lake, Minnesota, in what is now Voyageurs National Park.
Fujita was a pioneer photojournalist. He probably had minimal choice of cameras and had to carry bulky equipment. (Large camera, sheet film in film holders, flash bulbs, light meter and filters.) One of his early cameras was probably a Linhof Technika, a folding baseboard camera in use as early as 1903 (he owned one, according to a 1940 inventory). He also owned a Speed Graphic, the most famous press camera (using 4×5 sheet film). The first Speed Graphics were produced in 1912. The undated photo at the top of this story shows him with a camera at the time of the Eastland disaster in 1915. (If you can identify this camera, please comment below or use our Contact Us link.}
(Information about his equipment comes from an unpublished book by Graham Harrison Lee, his great-nephew.)
Fujita frequently suffered discrimination as a Japanese-American. He was followed by the FBI as early as 1915, according to this Poetry Foundation profile. In the 1940s, even though he had lived in the U.S. for 30 years and had a national reputation, his assets were frozen and he was declared an enemy alien. He was granted honorary citizenship by an act of Congress in 1954 at age 65.
Fujita died in 1963 at the age of 74. He’s buried in an unmarked grave at Graceland Cemetery, most likely in the Japanese section. His wife died in 1981 and donated his news photography archives to the Chicago History Museum. The Art Institute of Chicago has a collection of his art photography.
Jun Fujita: Oblivion runs through May 26 at the Poetry Foundation, 61 W. Superior. Hours are 11am to 4pm Monday-Friday and some Saturdays: April 15, May 13. The foundation is open 4-7pm on Tuesday, April 18 and May 16. Admission is free.