Akhiro Nobu — sushi chef by night, photographer by day — walks the line between the culinary and fine arts

Akhiro Nobu is both a culinary artist and artist-in-residence at Hama Sushi, where his portraits of downtown life hang on the walls Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Akhiro Nobu is both a culinary artist and artist-in-residence at Hama Sushi, where his portraits of downtown life hang on the walls
Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

By Michael Aushenker

Enter Hama Sushi’s main room and you’ll find yourself surrounded by indelible, atmospheric black-and-white images of the homeless and disenfranchised near downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

Each of the 14 framed photographs is a story told with the precision of a native, only the storyteller is a relative newcomer — Akhiro Nobu, a native of Japan who for the past several years has also worked as a sushi chef for the Windward Circle institution.

Hama Sushi is celebrating his work with an artist’s reception on Saturday at the restaurant.

Nobu’s photography captures downtown’s down-and-out with a respect, poignancy and conviction in the tradition of social realists Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn.

“Downtown is filled with strong characters. It’s great background too,” he says.

Nobu, 43, began his serious photographic work in 2012 and approached his study of downtown with a fly-on-the-wall documentary style. He was quickly drawn to the crevices between Skid Row and the old banking district.

“I just walk around and I’m looking for subjects. If I see a very strong character, I take it,” he said.

In November, Hama celebrates its 35th year in Venice and its 10th under owner Esther Chaing, a Seoul native. Since coming to town, Chaing has been a big supporter of localism and the arts, getting deeply involved in Venice’s arts scene, especially Venice Art Crawl.

“Hama is a community restaurant. I like to give people a chance to show their artwork here,” she said, eschewing any formal gallery process aside from artists getting on a wait list. “We’re not talking about that. It’s more about people enjoying [the work].”

What Chaing has also done is open up both her restaurant and the adjacent bar to art exhibits. Nobu has worked for Chaing at Hama since 2009.

“He’s a hard worker,” Chaing said of her chef. “Very artistic with sushi and very authentic.”

Then she discovered his photography.

“He showed me one day and it was really good,” Chaing recalled. “He’s not as studied [as someone who went to art school]. His [talent] is natural. He’s very talented.”

Before showing Chaing his work that day, “I wasn’t really serious [about photography], I didn’t have much money,” Nobu said.

However, at Chaing’s urging, he got in line for what’s become a six-month wait to show at Hama.

Nobu didn’t always pursue the arts of photography or sushi-making. He came to America 15 years ago as a drummer bent on playing hardcore metal in the tradition of favorite bands Slayer, Metallica and Sepultura.

There’s an implication that Nobu relates to some of the pain and isolation of his subjects.

Nobu does not visit his country of origin anymore. His parents are dead and he no longer has family or friends to visit there.

“A friend recommended me to stay in America,” Nobu said.

And so Nobu, whose father had operated a restaurant in west Japan, set out to train as a sushi chef.

He recalls a detail about his father with fondness.

“I remember my dad has a camera with film. My dad has photography magazines,” he said.

With the help of his photographer friend Sen, who had been shooting for two decades, Nobu began dabbling in photography four years ago. At Sen’s urging, Nobu started by capturing nature shots.

“I want to take photos of people, of their life,” Nobu said.

Among the established artists, Nobu pins his inspiration and style directly to Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama, who shoots social realism in black and white.

Wherever Nobu goes, he always carries a compact Cyko Reko camera so he can take candid photos.

“I don’t really ask people [permission] to do this or that because it’s not natural.”

Beyond converting his color shots into black and white, Nobu does not use Photoshop to enhance his raw images.

Despite the plethora of local color in Venice, Nobu said his eye remains fixed on downtown.

“I don’t think I can find any place like downtown,” Nobu said, adding that he does, however, hope to wander the back alleys and small streets of New York City.

But there’s one place he can’t visit anymore.

“I miss my childhood,” he said. “The place I used to play with my friends. The mountainside. I used to live in the countryside.”

Nobu’s photography is on display through Oct. 15 at Hama Sushi, 213 Windward Ave., Venice. The opening reception for the exhibit takes place at 6 p.m. Saturday at the restaurant. Call (310) 396-8783 or visit hamasushi.com. To see more of Nobu’s images, visit hirolupin.tumblr.com.