To show off a new Estée Lauder lipstick in 1974, he took a close-up photograph of a model’s face enveloped in darkness, with a seductive plume of smoke coming out of her mouth and drifting across the frame. He said he taught her to blow smoke that way, drawing on memories of opium dens he had walked past as a child in Shanghai.
“To photograph something beautiful doesn’t interest me,” he told Harper’s Bazaar in 2001. “I would rather do something surprising, something to twinkle people’s senses. I like them to think, ‘There’s something going on here . . . What is it?’ ”
Hiro was 90 when he died Aug. 15 at his country home in Erwinna, Pa. The longtime producer of his Manhattan studio, Peita Carnevale, confirmed his death but did not give a cause.
Shooting portraits, fashion, still life and reportage, Hiro “influenced generations and generations of photographers,” said one disciple and former assistant, Michael O’Neill. The American Society of Magazine Photographers named Hiro the Photographer of the Year in 1969, and in 1982, American Photographer magazine devoted an entire issue to his work, asking on the cover, “Is This America’s Greatest Photographer?”
“He could take a simple Nikon with a 50-millimeter lens and a beautiful model and a sunset, and make a picture that had nothing to do with the model, as she became a stone in the sun,” O’Neill said in a phone interview. “He designed with a Japanese eye as well as a Western eye — he was influenced by both worlds.”
Raised in China, where he and his family were confined to an internment camp for five months during World War II, and in Japan, where he started taking pictures with a Minoltaflex camera, Hiro left for the United States in 1953 and landed an apprenticeship with his idol Richard Avedon three years later. The photographers shared a studio in Midtown Manhattan for more than a decade.
“He is no ordinary man,” Avedon wrote in a 1965 Camera magazine article. “He is one of the few artists in the history of photography. He is able to bring his fear, his isolation, his darkness, his splendid light, to film.”
Through Avedon, Hiro met legendary Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch, who told him, “If you look in your camera and see something you’ve seen before, don’t click the shutter.” He took that advice to heart while working as a Harper’s Bazaar staff photographer for nearly two decades, and while collaborating with designers such as Elsa Peretti and Halston, who once called him “the greatest still life photographer in the world.”
“Why should I photograph something that’s already been worked out so that I can have my name on it?” Hiro said in a 1992 interview with the design magazine Graphis. “I don’t want to click the shutter for someone else’s idea. What’s the point?”
Photographing model Tilly Tizzani on the beach in Antigua, he had her wear a transparent blue scarf that covered her head. Shooting a new lipstick for Harper’s Bazaar, he photographed a woman popping pills between her flaming red lips. Another audacious photo showed a model’s big toe in close-up, the nail painted scarlet, with a tiny black ant perched on top like a mountaineer.
When Harper’s Bazaar asked him to shoot a sandal in 1963, he took a heavy Deardorff camera and climbed through a trap door in his studio building, shooting from overhead as a model walked alongside a wall. The end result, “Black Evening Dress in Flight, New York,” showed the woman with her sandal-clad right foot extended toward the bottom of the frame, and with her dress trailing behind like a diaphanous set of wings.
A year later, Hiro photographed a woman’s disembodied, balled-up hand, with clearly visible veins and a emerald and diamond bracelet on her wrist. Published in the early years of the women’s liberation movement, it was titled “Beauty in Strength, New York,” and shot with help from a tourniquet that he applied to make the model’s veins stand out.
In a 2016 article for Photograph magazine, photography critic Lyle Rexer wrote that Hiro’s pictures “introduced into fashion an extreme formalism that had everything to do with exploring the boundaries of photography and less to do with selling anything. . . . His underlying goal seems to be challenging viewers’ perceptions and point of view.”
“If Hiro is selling anything,” he added, “it is joy in a medium that shows us things that seem impossible and makes us believe them.”
Yasuhiro Wakabayashi was born into a Japanese family in Shanghai on Nov. 3, 1930. His mother was a teacher, and his father was a linguist working on a Chinese-Japanese dictionary; Hiro later speculated that he might have been a spy, noting that strangers often came in and out of the house late at night.
As a boy, he dreamed of becoming a doctor but gave that up because of the poverty he and his family endured as a result of World War II. They were packed “like sardines” while interned in Beijing, he recalled, and moved to Japan in 1946, passing through the ruins of Hiroshima en route to Tokyo, where he tutored American military officers in Japanese during the U.S. occupation.
Visiting their homes, he started reading Western fashion magazines that introduced him to the pictures of Avedon and Irving Penn, stimulating his interest in photography. He later studied briefly at the School of Modern Photography in New York.
In 1959, he married Elizabeth Clark, a Canadian set designer. In addition to his wife, Hiro is survived by two sons, Gregory and Clark Wakabayashi; a sister; and four grandchildren.
Fascinated by science, Hiro sought to photograph the Apollo 11 space launch for Harper’s Bazaar in 1969. The magazine turned him down, asking how a trip to the moon had anything to do with fashion, but he went to Cape Canaveral anyway and then used infrared film to capture the heat of the rocket as it lifted off the ground and headed toward the moon. The magazine’s editors decided to run his photo after all.
At a time when the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and other leading fashion magazines were almost entirely populated by White men and women, he insisted on using Asian and African American models for many of his shoots, refusing to travel to Africa for Harper’s Bazaar unless he could take a Black model with him. “The days when you could take a girl from Park Avenue and photograph her against an elephant are over,” he told The Washington Post in 1968. “People aren’t that dumb anymore.”
His photographs are in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, N.Y., and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which in 2016 organized his first major solo exhibition at an American museum.
Last year, Hamiltons Gallery in London exhibited photographs he made in the 1980s of fighting betta fish and dueling gamecocks. He had raised chickens and fish as a boy — the photos’ violence also suggested the cruelty he witnessed during World War II — and spent hours in the studio trying to capture the animals in action, shooting the birds in black and white with their beaks open, claws extended and wings aflutter.
“You can never have too much control,” Hiro told Graphis in 1992. “I was a control-freak when I was younger, for neurotic reasons. I’m much better about that now. But control is another way of being and I enjoy it. Someone once asked me why do I photograph? And I said because it’s the most honest way I find myself. Once I get behind a camera, I become another person.”