A perfect world

Kiyoshi Togashi’s lifelong pursuit of precision

By Jeff Kent
Images By ©Kiyoshi Togashi
First published in October 2006

‘‘If you can consistently produce the same level of style and quality, and meet your clients’ layouts and deadlines, you will get hired again and again,” says Eileen Togashi.

This story begins with a Japanese boy, a second son and the youngest of the family’s five children. He grew up after World War II in a remote rural region in northern Japan. As the younger son, Kiyoshi Togashi would not inherit the family farm, but there was compensation. Togashi would be allowed to pursue a career of his own choosing. The power of self-determination was rare in his culture, and it came with great pressure to succeed.

Togashi came to photography the way one might serendipitously find artistic inspiration in a cluttered old museum. In this case, it was finding a camera amidst his grandfather’s collection of rare art. Young Togashi was fascinated with the camera, and having a mechanical bent, he took it apart to discover how it worked. He found more than a collection of flanges, levers and dials; he found a calling that inspired him like nothing had before.

Togashi left his hometown to attend photographic college in Tokyo. Life in the megalopolis was a major change, to say the least. He had to learn an entirely different dialect of Japanese just to communicate. Unsupported financially, to get by he had to work a variety of jobs, including driving an 18-wheeler full of fish around the country. It was a challenge, but the experience would steel him, and give direction and focus to his photography.

After graduating, Togashi went to work for a prominent Japanese fashion photographer, who told him he had talent, but he wasn’t a good follower. Go to the United States, he advised. Travel the country and make a photographic report of what you find, then return to Japan and present a grand exhibition of your work. That was the surefire route to his success in Japan.

So in 1970, still young and without knowing a speck of English, Togashi came to America with a single metal suitcase. He made his way to New York, got an apartment with some Japanese artists, and worked a series of odd jobs to support himself. Whenever they got the chance, Togashi and his new friends would take to the highway to see the nation’s great sites. Togashi’s trusty Nikon went everywhere with him.

It was during one of these trips that a series of misfortunes would lead Togashi to his soul mate. En route from Florida to New York, Togashi’s car broke down in Virginia, not far from Fredericksburg and Mary Washington University. While working for a local artist to earn money for repairs, Togashi was injured and had to extend his stay.

During that unexpected layover, he met a Mary Washington student named Eileen. The two formed an instant bond, and Togashi ending up staying until Eileen graduated from college.

The two moved to Washington, D.C., married, and opened a small photography business. She became Togashi’s agent, backup art director and occasional translator. Togashi now speaks English, but Eileen is still present for every shoot to ensure that the client’s every nuance comes across.

The couple moved to New York in 1978 and established Togashi Photography in the same building as photography legends Irving Penn and Bill King. The studio specialized in commercial photography, with a focus on still life and tabletop shots. Togashi built a reputation for impeccable close-up and still life photography, meticulously constructed to his own exacting standards. He prefers to work with the products in advance of a shoot so he can experiment with different angles and lighting combinations.

“Perfectionism is what his work is all about,” says Eileen, who continues to be Togashi’s official spokesperson. “Being Japanese with the Zen character, and having that influence in his culture, he has an enhanced ability to create works of technical excellence. But there is a great deal of creativity involved as well. Clients come in and say we want to portray the product this way, but give us your input. Togashi always comes up with innovative solutions.”

Togashi has made a healthy living over the years, but the market for commercial photography keeps getting tighter, and it’s expensive to operate a full-service studio in Manhattan. “The cost of staying in business is discouraging,” says Eileen. “The overhead and fixed costs in New York City are incredible. And then there’s the rapid technology transfer of digital. In recent years, Togashi has had to learn to be a computer expert more than a photographer.”

But as long as Togashi and Eileen stay inspired, they’ll stay in business. They’ve learned to adapt to survive, and have weathered their fair share of stylistic storms. Still, there’s a delicate balance between adaptation and identity. “There must be something that sets you apart,” says Eileen. “Why are your clients coming to you? Why do people knock on your door? It’s because you are you and they like the work you’ve done. If you can consistently produce the same level of style and quality, and meet your clients’ layouts and deadlines, you will get hired again and again.”

Togashi’s signature is forcing viewers to look at things in new ways, says Eileen. “There is an artistic approach to the design and detail. He really wants you to stop and look at the subject the way you wouldn’t normally look at it. It’s like peeling away layers of an onion,” she says. Looking back, Eileen and Togashi have few regrets after a long and distinguished career. Sure, it’s been difficult at times, but it’s also been fun and glamorous and inspiring.

“It’s been an exciting career,” says Eileen. “It’s one that we never anticipated. We never knew how it was going to turn out. So we hung in there. This is what we do, and sometimes that’s all we focused on. And then suddenly you realize that maybe you’re doing this because you love it, not because you have to.” Perhaps that is the most inspiring realization of all.

To see more images by Kiyoshi Togashi, visit www.togashistudio.com.

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