20th October 2017 - Work to restore a trove of original photo negatives capturing legendary American actor James Dean (1931-1955) is under way here, with members of the team working on the project hoping to pass down the valuable assets to future generations.

The mostly black and white negatives — totaling 1,570 shots — were taken by world-renowned photographer Sanford Roth (1906-1962) over six decades ago and have been kept in Kobe essentially untouched for the past 30 years. The project aims to digitize 250 of the shots and put them on display — including one of Dean driving his new Porsche Spyder shortly before he died in a car crash at age 24.

The priceless negative collection belongs to Seita Ohnishi, 85, a resident of Kobe and the founder of a beverage company. An avid fan of Dean ever since he saw “East of Eden,” the actor’s first major film, Ohnishi had the good fortune to take over the collection — including its copyright — from Roth’s widow Beulah in 1987. This was a decade after Ohnishi personally paid to erect a memorial to Dean at the crash site. The collection has since been kept at Ohnishi’s home, with some shots having been released in a photo book but otherwise not seeing the light of day.

The negatives, which include three previously unreleased color shots, capture Dean in the 85 days before his death — from his casual expression at a filming location, to sharing a laugh at Roth’s home. As Roth, who became close to Dean while taking stills for the actor’s last film, “Giant,” was with Dean on the day of the star’s death, some shots are from shortly before and after the car accident.

James Dean, right, shortly before his fatal car crash. The original photo was taken by Sanford Roth and is part of a collection held by Seita Ohnishi

James Dean, right, shortly before his fatal car crash. The original photo was taken by Sanford Roth and is part of a collection held by Seita Ohnishi

After receiving a query from Ohnishi, 34-year-old web design company president Masatake Kawaguchi launched the project team to preserve the negative collection along with photographers Tomofumi Nakano, 39, and Yoshiaki Kita, 50.

“I was surprised to learn that the original negatives had been kept in Kobe,” Nakano said. “The photos are historically valuable and should be passed down to future generations. The negatives will inevitably degrade, so we would like to protect the value of the original shots.”

The restoration work went into full swing in March this year, and the members are aiming to hold a photo exhibition in two to three years, and to publish a photo collection.

“A great deal of information is recorded in the negatives, from shooting conditions to lighting. We would like to resurrect the photos in the modern era while honoring the intentions of the photographer,” Kita said.

Ohnishi, who affectionately calls Dean “Jimmy,” said, “I want younger generations who don’t know Jimmy to see the photos, through which he is given a new lease on life. I’m sure no one else would be happier than Jimmy.”