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A Letter From Japan: The Photographs of John Swope

A Letter From Japan: The Photographs of John Swope
Carolyn Peter
Co-published by UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum
Edited by Sherri Schottlaender

Essays by John W. Dower & John Swope


256 pages
226×264 mm
ISBN: 9783865212672


As one of the first American photographers to set foot on Japanese soil at the end of World War II, even before Japan had officially surrendered, John Swope experienced and recorded a critical, peculiar, and fragile moment in the history of Japan and a war-torn world. His powerful photographic essay is complemented by a 144-page letter that he wrote to his wife, the actress Dorothy McGuire, which describes, in detail, his experiences and emotional reactions to all that he saw and photographed. Swope went to Japan as part of the elite team of Edward Steichen Naval photographers to document the release of Allied prisoners of war, but he went far beyond his official duties. During a three-and-a-half week period he took photographs that vividly convey the impact of World War II on the local population and the land, as well as the Allied prisoners. Having visited Japan fifteen years before as a young man, Swope struggled in 1945 with the numerous contradictions he observed and felt. His photographs, together with his words, convey a poignant, highly personal view of this world in limbo expressing a great sense of humanity and sensitivity for people on both sides of the conflict. The book honors Swope’s original intention of bringing together his photographs with the letter he wrote to his wife; individual images are juxtaposed with short excerpts. The book presents 114 color plates and gives insight into Swope’s larger pursuit of capturing the universal human experience by also including highlights from his work as a Hollywood photographer, from his Life magazine career, and from his international travels from the 1930s to the 1970s.

About the Artist
Swope was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1908. As a student at Harvard, he joined the “University Players,” a theatrical group whose members included Henry Fonda, Josh Logan and Jimmy Stewart. Swope forged close friendships that would last a lifetime and influence a career.

Swope discovered photography in 1936 after taking a camera along on a yacht race from Los Angeles to Honolulu. The avid sailor became fascinated with its possiblities and, upon returing home to Los Angeles, used his position as production assistant to Leland Hayward to capture behind-the-scenes images of Hollywood during its Golden Age. His work led to publication of his first book, Camera Over Hollywood (Random House).

In 1938, Swope was commissioned by Henry Street Settlement House to document the work of nurses in Harlem and the Lower East Side. The following year, he and JOsh Logan were sent by Harper’s Bazaar as a writer/ photographer team to cover South America. At the onset of World War II, he enlisted as a U.S. Army flight instructor. When the brass learned of his photography skills, he was teamed with John Steinbeck. The collaboration between photographer and writer resulted in Bombs Away (Viking), a revealing book that documented the pilot-training program. Later he was reassigned to Edward Steichen’s U.S. Navy photographic unit. He was in Japan to capture the sighting of the Declaration of Surrender, and remained on hand to photograph the release of Allied POW’s.

In 1943, Swope married actress Dorothy McGuire. He joined Life magazine’s stable of freelance photographers after the war and, over the course of the next 14 years, produced an extensive body of work for publication. He specialized in documenting the world of theater and film, and in creating natural portraits of celebrities. Swope had the unique ability to juxtapose his subjects with specific elements from their environment which revealed intimate aspects of their lives.

Between 1956 and 1978, Swope traveled the world, turning his camera on people and places. In 1975, he photographed the domains of the maharajahs of India for James Ivory’s Autobiography of a Princess (Harper & Row). Influenced by Mondrian’s use of linear space, he created deceptively simple but well-thought-out pictures that are intricate in composition and infused with emotion. Hallmarks of his work are the use of available light; shooting scenes from unusual angles; and informal portraits of people made possible by Swope’s easy, often humorous rapport with people. His unvarying advice to neophyte photographers was to “keep it simple.” Swope was a master practitioner of this most difficult of arts.
Over the years his work was displayed at galleries and museums, including the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, the Joclyn Art Museum in Omaha, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. John Swope died in Los Angeles in 1979.

About the Author
Carolyn Peter is a researcher, writer, & cataloguer, department of photographs at J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, since 2018.

About the Publisher
Gerhard Steidl began working as a printer and designer in 1968. From political non-fiction he then expanded into literature and selected books on art and photography. Steidl publishes German literature as well as translations from French, English and Icelandic.

In 1994 Steidl launched its international photobook program. Today it includes some of the world’s most renowned photographers and artists including Joel Sternfeld, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Robert Adams, Karl Lagerfeld, Lewis Baltz, Dayanita Singh, Ed Ruscha, Roni Horn and Juergen Teller, to name but a few.

Every Steidl book distinguishes itself through individual design and production values. Known for his passion for paper, printer and publisher Gerhard Steidl personally selects the paper and binding materials for each title and oversees all aspects of the production process – each Steidl book literally passes through his hands.

Over the decades Steidl at Düstere Strasse 4 in Göttingen has become one of the most respected printers in the international publishing world. Whether photography, art, fashion or literature, it is Steidl’s goal to realize the dreams and goals of artists and authors, and to create art in book form.