Shigemi Uyeda’s Reflections on the Oil Ditch
Getty Conversations

A conversation with Dr.  Virginia Heckert, Curator, Department of Photographs, Getty Museum, and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, Dean of Content and Strategy, Smarthistory, at Getty Center in front of Shigemi Uyeda, Reflections on the Oil Ditch, c. 1925. Gelatin silver print, 33.5 x 26.5 cm. Getty Museum, Los Angeles © Family of Shigemi Uyeda

Shigemi Uyeda captured the environment of Los Angeles and the growing popularity of oil production in the early 20th century. He created a composition of hardened oil with water drops to capture the perfect reflection of an oil derrick from the early morning sun.

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Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:04] We’re at the Getty Center. We’re in the Study Room of the Department of Photographs, standing in front of “Reflections on the Oil Ditch” by the Japanese American photographer Shigemi Uyeda, who has often been left out of histories of American art and histories of American photography.

[0:23] When we look closely both at the photograph itself and the larger context in which it was made, it really gives us important insight into what’s happening in Los Angeles in the 1920s.

Dr. Virginia Heckert: [0:35] You see dappled light bouncing off these circular patterns you see projecting from the upper right form entering into the composition, and you’re not really sure what you’re looking at.

[0:47] Uyeda was one of a number of photographers who were based in and around Los Angeles. Many of these photographers were associated with a camera club called the Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California.

[1:00] Initially, it was an informal gathering of Japanese immigrants who were interested in photography and gathered together to do formal critiques, to go on excursions, and to organize their photographs in exhibitions, and then became formalized in 1926.

[1:15] It happens that Uyeda was not a member of this club, but he was friends with many of the people who were in the club.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:22] Many members of the photo club, as well as unofficial members like Uyeda, were going around to take photographs of things in their backyard or in and around the environment in which they lived.

[1:34] In the case of the photograph that we’re standing in front of, this is in Santa Fe Springs, known by this point in time in the 1920s as an important source of oil. They’re producing lots of oil. There’s lots of oil derricks, or the apparatus that holds the oil drill.

[1:52] We’re seeing his engagement with the kind of rapidly shifting landscape of Southern California, of Los Angeles, due to urbanization and other types of industries like oil.

Dr. Heckert: [2:03] I love that idea of rapidly shifting landscape in the larger sense but also in the sense of this specific photograph, because if you didn’t know the title of it, you would not really know what you’re looking at. You might think it was some kind of floor treatment, some kind of linoleum.

[2:17] This was probably his best-known photograph. It was reproduced in numerous photography almanacs, yearbooks, journals. In one of them, in 1930, he described how he came to take this photograph.

[2:30] He wrote, “This was taken in cold weather, so cold that the oil ditch had hardened up. On this hardened oil it rained for about one minute in the afternoon and the rain did not sink through but collected into circles. It was so beautiful that afternoon that I ached to take the picture but there was not enough light, so I got up the next morning at sunrise.”

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:49] I find it almost disorienting, because we don’t have a horizon line to orient ourselves to where we are in the world. Instead, we have these pools of water that have been formed on the hardened oil.

[3:02] Then, on the top left side we have this reflection from the sun that Uyeda almost seems to have perfectly matched with the darker reflection of the oil derrick that’s just enough out of focus that it’s hard to determine what exactly it is. So it is this very abstracted sense of this landscape.

Dr. Heckert: [3:20] We have another object in our collection that helps to provide context, and that is a print from the 4×5 negative that Uyeda made of this site.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:30] As we look at these two photographs side-by-side, we can see he has made a conscientious choice to crop out some of those features that would help identify us in a specific type of landscape.

[3:42] I’m reminded also of Japanese prints, where you have images cropped tightly or interesting artistic choices that are to some degree disorienting, and remind me of the choices that he’s made here.

Dr. Heckert: [3:56] You kind of bounce back and forth between feeling like you’re looking down on something or looking at a vertical surface.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:03] He’s making this photograph between World War I and World War II, where you have photographers like Uyeda who are drawing on different ideas — both pictorialism, where they’re thinking about photography that had the ambition to be seen as legitimate works of art, and then a more modernist impulse that we’re seeing, say, with things like the abstracted elements but these really crisp lines around the water that’s pooled.

Dr. Heckert: [4:27] You have to remember that come December 1941, with Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese American photographers had to get rid of their cameras. They had to destroy, sell, or hide all the photographs that they had made.

[4:41] Uyeda had the foresight to create a false ceiling in his home in Lancaster and hide his photographs and his camera there. But during the next couple of years, these photographers were incarcerated in relocation camps.

[4:55] He was incarcerated at the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona. He returned home, found that his home had been ransacked, but still, many of the photographs and his camera did survive.

[5:06] He later became a naturalized citizen and died in 1980. Many of the photographers were not so fortunate or did not have the same long relationship with the United States. Some of them returned home to Japan.

[5:20] Some of them died during their incarceration in these relocation centers. Some of them gave up photography completely. These photographers were an important chapter of the making of art and specifically photography in Los Angeles.

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Dennis Reed, Making Waves: Japanese American Photography, 1920–1940, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2016).

Cite this page as: Dr. Virginia Heckert and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Shigemi Uyeda’s Reflections on the Oil Ditch
Getty Conversations," in Smarthistory, May 17, 2023, accessed July 13, 2024,