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BPA Engineer's Historic Photography Featured at Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center
2/28/2014 12:00 AM
Frank Hirahara remembered his six years as a young engineer at BPA headquarters fondly. His photos of post-World War II life in Portland, with a focus on the Japanese-American and Chinese-American communities, are the subject of an exhibit at the Oregon Nikkei Endowment’s Legacy Center in Portland.
A new exhibit at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center zooms in for a glimpse of the Bonneville Power Administration’s work in the post-World War II era and pans out to explore the photographic talents of a young BPA electrical engineer, Frank C. Hirahara, and the life of his Portland community more than 60 years ago.
The Oregon Nikkei Endowment's Legacy Center, in Portland’s Old Town district, celebrates its 25th anniversary with the exhibit “Capturing a Generation through the Eye of a Lens: The Photographs of Frank C. Hirahara, 1948-1954.” The daughter of the photographer and former BPA employee, who died in 2006, donated more than 1,000 of his historic photos to the center, including more than two dozen of the federal power marketing administration.
A third-generation American from Yakima, Wash., Hirahara began taking pictures at age 12. His parents, George and Koto, operated Yakima’s Pacific Hotel before World War II. As a teen, he honed his photographic skills while being held with his family at a Japanese internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., from 1942 to 1945.
At Heart Mountain, Hirahara apprenticed under War Relocation Authority photographer Bud Aoyama and served as photo editor and photographer of the Heart Mountain High School yearbook. Using a secret darkroom and photo studio that his father, George Hirahara, built under their barracks apartment, Frank and his father processed more than 2,000 photos they shot of the internment camp between 1943 and 1945. These photos, considered the largest private collection taken at Heart Mountain, were donated to Washington State University in 2010.
As a design engineer and assistant project engineer, Hirahara worked on BPA substations and transmission facilities in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, many of which he also photographed.
After graduating from WSU in 1948, Hirahara was hired by the Department of the Interior to work at BPA in Portland. He spent six years as a design engineer and assistant project engineer in the substation design group, working on facilities in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. When he left in 1954, the experience he gained at BPA provided a springboard to a career in the aerospace industry in Southern California.
Patti Hirahara said her father remembered his post-collegiate years at BPA fondly.
“It was exciting for him to be able to work in his first job for the federal government and to be in Portland,” she said. “It was just the perfect setting for him, and it provided an opportunity to take a more serious look at his photography. He was close enough to home, he knew a lot of the people he was working with, and he was able to be a part of the Portland Japanese community as it was being reborn after World War II.”
As the exhibit reveals, Hirahara’s photography combined the technical eye of an engineer with an artist’s sense of composition.
It opens with two photos and an interpretive panel about Hirahara’s tenure at BPA. The main body of the show depicts the daily life of Portland’s Japanese-American and Chinese-American communities, the activities of the Oregon Camera Club and Portland Photographic Society, and citywide events such as the Portland Rose Festival. One of the exhibit's highlights is Hirahara’s portrait of Portland’s 1954 Miss America semifinalist, Patti Throop, before her reign as a Rose Festival princess, Miss Portland and Miss Oregon.
The exhibit is a sanctioned event of the Portland Rose Festival.
Many of the Hiraharas’ Heart Mountain photos are also featured in the documentary film, “WITNESS – The Legacy of Heart Mountain,” by Emmy-award-winning Los Angeles news anchor David Ono. A preview of the documentary appears in the photo exhibit and a newly expanded version of the film will be shown at the Hollywood Theatre at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 5. Tickets for the screening can be purchased online through the Hollywood Theatre website at
. A Q&A will follow with Ono, co-producer Jeff MacIntyre and Patti Hirahara.
The Frank C. Hirahara exhibit is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 3 p.m., through June 15 at 121 N.W. 2nd Ave. in Portland. Admission is $5, $3 seniors and students. Children under 12 and members are free. For more information, go to
or call 503-224-1458.
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