As a young Army officer and amateur photographer, Robert
L. Steele was glued to a camera for most of the 30 months
he spent in Japan as part of the U.S. occupation force after
World War II.
Nearly 40 years later, his archive of thousands of previously
unpublished color slides of everyday life near Tokyo caught
the eye of a major Japanese news company and led to his
work being exhibited in one of Japan's most prestigious
Col. Steele, who retired in 1966 with the rank of lieutenant
colonel, died Feb. 22 at his home in Arlington County of
coronary artery disease. He was 84.
As a lieutenant out of the U.S. Military Academy in West
Point, N.Y., he toured around Japan with a duffel bag filled
with hundreds of rolls of color Kodak film, which was extremely rare in the Pacific after
He captured images of workers tending to market stalls, farmers ankle-deep in a
cabbage patch and children smiling at U.S. soldiers patrolling their town.
He took the photos for his own pleasure, but his personal archive later proved to be a
treasure trove of historical footage.
In the early 1980s, he had a chance meeting in Washington with representatives from the
Japanese Embassy and the Mainichi newspaper company, one of Japan's largest news
Col. Steele told them about his old photos and showed them a sampling. Surprised at
the breadth of Col. Steele's unpublished collection, the newspaper's representatives told
him that they wanted to use his photos. Until meeting Col. Steele, the Mainichi news
company had few color photos of Japan during the postwar U.S. occupation.
In 1985, Col. Steele was commissioned by Mainichi to curate a large project that would
include two books, a number of glossy magazines, and a television production that
comprised his photographic work and thousands of other pictures he had found by
As a result, a number of Col. Steele's color photographs are on permanent display at the
Edo-Tokyo Museum in the Japanese capital.
Robert Lee Steele, whose father was an Army officer, was born in in Washington on
Aug. 25, 1925. After graduating from Western High School (1943), he received a
presidential appointment to West Point.
Col. Steele graduated from the military academy in 1946 and served in Korea during the
1950s. He later served at West Point as a faculty member of the English department,
until being reassigned in 1962 to Frankfurt as a public information officer.
According to his family, Col. Steele was in charge of coordinating press coverage of
President John F. Kennedy's 1963 visit to Germany, where the commander in chief
fumbled his words during his "Ich bein ein Berliner" speech.
Col. Steele retired to the Washington area in 1966. In the 1970s, he joined the National
Association of Home Builders' magazine as a business editor and retired from there in
His wife of 42 years, the former Patricia Blake, died in 1991.
Survivors include four children, Amanda Steele of Chapel Hill, N.C., Newell Steele of Fort
Myers Beach, Fla., Marilee Steele of Arlington and Robin Steele of Chicago; a brother;
and a grandson.