On countless walks through parts of Boston many never visit, David Akiba developed a singular vision of the city that he captured in decades of photographs.
“I spent a lot of time in the half-destroyed urban parts of town,” he told the Globe in 1992, recalling his early years. “Charlestown was virtually a wasteland in that era. I liked the railroad yards. I loved hanging out in razed buildings.”
As an artist and teacher, in color and black and white, he looked intently at scenes that might barely draw a glance from less inquisitive eyes: mannequins stacked in a factory, an Orange Line station that commuters bustle through, or a spider web of branches framing a Jamaica Pond vista.
“It would be accurate to call him a local photographic hero — except that ‘hero’ in an artistic context often can mean overbearing and disproportionate,” Globe critic Mark Feeney wrote in 2009. Not so with Mr. Akiba, he added. This photographer “is modest to a fault,” Feeney wrote. “He’s always focused more on furthering his art than furthering his career.”
Mr. Akiba, who had taught at schools including Emerson College and Babson College, died Aug. 24 of esophageal cancer. He was 78 and had lived in Jamaica Plain for many years.
In books and in exhibitions at museums and other venues, he displayed art culled from an array of sources.
Globe critic Christine Temin called Mr. Akiba “a fitting choice for the first of the Boston Public Library’s yearlong series of shows that are its contribution to ‘1999: Celebrating Boston’s Artists,’ ” when his work was exhibited in the Wiggin Gallery.
In one photo, she added, “he turns tree branches into spun sugar. In the 1991 ‘Tree Stump in Snow, Larz Anderson Park,’ he makes something that looks more like an etching than a photo, and puts the precisely outlined stump against a pure white ground with no line between sky and earth. He choreographs an antic dance for ‘Fallen Leaf,’ whose crisp contour is reminiscent of an Ellsworth Kelly plant drawing.”
The show, Temin wrote, “testifies to Akiba’s eye — and his tenacity. Once he gets hold of a subject, he stays with it.”
And he passed along that lesson as a teacher. Mr. Akiba would send students to places they knew well and tell them to shoot two or three rolls of film.
“ ‘How can I possibly do that?’ they say. But if you look at something you’re attracted to, that’s just the beginning of the process,” he recalled in a 1999 Globe interview.
“You have to look attentively. Find a motif. Explore it. Make a shot. Consider the interesting perspectives, the light,” he said, adding that “you can never exhaust the possibilities of the landscape. There are so many different kinds of woods, trees, and shrubs. It’s like Monet in his garden.”
Mr. Akiba was born David Cohen, in Boston in 1940. He was the son of Irving Cohen, an electrician, and Estelle Rosen, who worked in a state agency.
The older of two siblings, Mr. Akiba was raised in Winthrop and later changed Cohen to Akiba, in part to have a less common name and also because he liked the writings of a rabbi by that name, said his wife, Jane, who also is a photographer.
“I grew up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood in Winthrop,” he recalled in the 1992 interview. “It never crossed my mind you could make a living as a photographer. I never heard of art photography — Ansel Adams, that kind of thing.”
Yet from early on he cultivated a love for what would become his calling.
“In my childhood bedroom I set up a makeshift darkroom,” he wrote in an autobiographical sketch on his website. “The enlarger and chemistry came from the camera stores that lined Bromfield Street in the 1950s. The smell of developer and fix mixed together like a diluted version of smelling salts and honey.”
Mr. Akiba graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in political science and served in the Navy.
“He was on a ship during the Cuban missile crisis heading to Cuba when they got the order to turn around,” his wife said.
After the Navy, Mr. Akiba worked as a suburban newspaper reporter but knew his future lay elsewhere.
He married Barbara Falcon and they had two sons before their marriage ended in divorce.
Mr. Akiba attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied under the photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind and graduated with a master of fine arts degree.
Throughout his photography career, Mr. Akiba was a teacher as well.
“I enjoy helping students discover the magical qualities of image making,” he said in a 2012 interview posted on the website of Clara Lieu, who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Over the years, he guided students at places such as the New England School of Photography, the Art Institute of Boston, Babson, and Emerson, where Jane teaches visual and media arts.
“He didn’t want to be a full-time professor because that would mean committees, and he didn’t want that. He wanted to do his work,” she said, though teaching part time didn’t lessen his impact on students.
“He gave them confidence in their own vision, in their own voice, that nobody had ever done,” she said. “People talk about how 20 years later, 30 years later they still hear David’s voice in their mind.”
Mr. Akiba married Jane Levin in 1982 and was devoted to his children, who “had this wonderful father who loved them and cared for them,” she said.
A service has been held for Mr. Akiba, who in addition to his wife leaves four sons, Daniel and Samuel, both of Brooklyn, N.Y., Jonah of Israel, and Isaac of Jamaica Plain; two daughters, Rachel of Norwood and Abigail of Jamaica Plain; a sister, Marjorie Rizzo of Revere; his former wife, Barbara of Brookline; and, 11 grandchildren.
Mr. Akiba’s work is part of the collections of institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Fogg Art Museum, the Boston Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, where his photographs will be part of an exhibition that opens Saturday.
With his wide-ranging interests, Mr. Akiba could converse about everything from sports to quantum physics, “and not on the lay level. He was such an intellectual,” Jane said.
As an artist, Mr. Akiba was “poetic in the sense that poetry bespeaks a heightened awareness of beauty and an ability to capture that beauty with economy and formal grace,” the Globe’s Feeney wrote, reviewing a 2009 exhibition.
“As a musician treasures the unique qualities of his instrument, I have come to deeply appreciate the camera’s singular way of rendering space on a flat surface,” Mr. Akiba wrote on his website.
“It has taught me to see the world more acutely, more joyfully,” he added. “If the photograph is honest, the viewer may travel on a parallel path to its axis of feeling. There is no certainty of meaning, only the possibility of sharing a living moment.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.