This Japanese-American Photographer Captured the Elegance of 90s Harlem
All photos by Katsu Naito

This Japanese-American Photographer Captured the Elegance of 90s Harlem

A look inside Katsu Naito​'s new book, 'Once in Harlem.'
September 22, 2017, 6:30pm

Japanese-American photographer Katsu Naito embodies the spirit, charm, and determination required of any ambitious street shooter. After relocating from rural Japan to Manhattan as a teenager in the 80s, Naito picked up a 35mm SLR and quickly started shooting everything in his new environment. Not long after his move, Naito visited to the predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem for the first time. He was immediately struck by the sight of open skies and its inescapable energy. After just one tip to Harlem, Naito had the urge to document everything he saw, but waited until he moved to the neighborhood a few years after, realizing he wouldn't be able to honestly photograph Harlem without living there himself. Despite the language and cultural barriers that laid in front of him, Naito used photography as an entryway into the community. He lived Uptown for decades, producing deeply personal work similar to the street photographers who precede him, like Jamel Shabazz and Diane Arbus.

Once in Harlem, Katsu Naito's new book, debuts this weekend at the New York Art Book Fair. It depicts a Harlem in stark contrast to the neighborhood it is today: desolate streets, abandoned buildings, and early 90s fashion fill its pages. The book offers an intimate look at the neighborhood through the eyes of someone slowly becoming part of it. Where many photographers fall flat trying to capture a community outside the one they come from, Naito brings a level of care and respect to his portraits, allowing the work to spark from a genuine love for the people and streets he photographed.

Just ahead of the book fair I met up with Katsu for lunch in Harlem to discuss his first impressions of the neighborhood, photographing strangers, and looking back on this body of work for the first time in over 20 years.

VICE: So you moved from Japan to New York as a teenager in the 80s to work in a restaurant. What was your experience like when you first got here?
Katsu Naito: It's a very funny story. My mother had this ad in the newspaper for an opening position as a chef in New York. My mother said "Kids like you should go to a place like that to learn discipline. Why don't you call and set up an interview?" Me and my mother went in for the interview and fortunately no one else was there for the interview, so I was automatically accepted. So within two months, I moved here. That was in 1983. I was on a contract for three years, but I got fired after two years after I applied for my green card. Then I started trying to find things to do for my personal time.

Is that what led you to start taking photos once you left your job?
I had a point and shoot camera when I was living in Japan that was a gift from my mother. That camera was always within my reach, so I took many pictures of my friends, but I was never very serious about it. One of the chefs who was in his 20s had a LEICA M6 and showed me how great the photographs that were taken on it could be. I think he influenced me a lot and I bought to myself Canon AE-1, so my interests shifted towards taking picture around then.

After I got fired in 1985, I started just walking around. I wasn't good with English, and when you don't speak much, you find something that you can still get involved with—listening to music, or doing something spontaneously. I was mostly with the club kids back in the 80s. I'd meet someone and talk, but we couldn't really communicate. So that's when I decided to grab my camera and started taking pictures on the street. Then, I had my friend around with me and I asked my friend to be photographed. That's how I started taking pictures.

Then I built up my portfolio and I started doing some work for magazines. I started working in a photo studio shooting models, and I did that for some time, but I kind of noticed it wasn't for me—it was just work. I realized I wanted to take pictures from my heart. So I left the studio, and I found myself more often taking photos on the street all over New York.

What were your immediate impressions of Harlem the first time you went?
The first time visiting Harlem was very challenging for me, because I was living on the Upper West Side at the time where security was not a primary concern. I remember getting chills in my back just being in the street surrounded by abandoned buildings. But at the same time, I felt some kind of comfort because of the bigger views of the sky since the buildings were not as tall as other areas in the city. I tried to act as normal as possible—not looking around like a tourist and walking as if I was living there… at least I tried to. A camera was in my backpack all the time. I didn't like the movement of taking a camera out and putting back in after taking a picture, but I managed to snap a few rolls with my 35mm camera. Something really grabbed me about Harlem, so I wanted to live there just to take pictures. I felt like without living there I couldn't take pictures of it. Just being a visitor is not fair to the people I'm asking to take pictures of. So I knew I would live in Harlem one day after my first visit.

How did you start becoming more comfortable taking photos in Harlem?
I just tried to be friendly. Not being accepted was something that I expected—being from a different nation and living in Harlem. I expected them to reject me. The more I got rejected, the more I tried to be friendly. I believe that if you try many, many times to reveal your true, sincere feelings, people will open up to you, because you're opening up to them.

There was this newsstand on 119th and 5th Avenue, and that's where I would go to hang out every day. Older people and young people would come to hang out at that newsstand. I wanted to join them, so I would go to visit every day, but the first time I went, they rejected me. I introduced myself to the clerk, and he acted like he didn't even see me. I said, "Thank you for your time. I'll come back tomorrow." I went back the next day and started talking to him and he was like, "Get out. This is not for you." Then I went back and back and eventually they accepted me. Many of the pictures in the book I shot around that area—especially those photos against the backdrop.

I hung out there everyday for a very long time. The man who ran it, Bob, used to worry about me a lot. He said "You're not black, and you have a camera," and he would hold me and say "Be careful." I told him "Bob, don't worry. I live here."

In the book you describe being suspected of being a cop when you first moved there?
I tried to show my face around the neighborhood first. But I think the little camera I had around my neck gave them a wrong idea. Later I found out I was living in the middle of a gang base and many of the young kids were dealing drugs and ammunition. I made a wrong move in a wrong place. As matter of fact, I saw kids shooting guns towards the abandoned buildings and sky from my window at least two or three times a week. No kidding… I saw a guy who was running away from another guy who had a gun in his hands, and then he collapsed and blood ran down the street. He was shot in the back of his head and the gun the other man was holding in his hand suddenly became somebody else's, because a man who happened to walk near by took it from the dead body. I saw tons of activity like that from my windows.The scary thing is, you learned not to react to gunfire or anything of that nature. The feeling became numb.

Did you have any sort of relationship to the people you photographed in the book?
Some of them lived in my building, but most of them were strangers. I saw many of them every day in the streets and would have a light conversation with them. Most all of them did not like to have their picture taken if you were a stranger. But if they knew who you were, then they would welcome you to photograph them.

There are a number of people I have memories of. I remember the one of the old man, Ned, standing with his cane. He lived upstairs where I lived, and he used to sit right in front of our building and would send his day drinking. Many times by the end of the day his pants would be wet because he would piss himself. I would find him and say, "Ned, you're pissing again. Let me take you to your room," and I'd take him to his room. I remember taking pictures of the young kids who would come over to my place. Around that time, I had a IBM computer, and I would teach the kids how to type.

What is the time frame for the photos in the book? Have you seen Harlem change over that period of time?
Most of these images were taken between 1990 and 1995. When I started living in Harlem, the Mayor was Ed Koch. Then it was Mayor Dinkins who made Harlem easier for local people to live in. Then it was Giuliani, and Harlem started to change after Giuliani era. Under his operations, many of the gangsters were busted and Harlem became a lot safer for people who lived there and for visitors. But in a way, because of the gangsters, the area was well-protected from outsiders before Giuliani.

How long did it take to publish this work?
I wanted turn these images into photo book much later on, so I packed away and boxed the negatives for a long time. When I began to feel it was time to make the final prints to show it around, I started to do some tests. First of all, I had to find a solid direction to do my printing—how I like the print to look and feel. That took a long time—almost three years or longer because the photographic paper I used to print on went out of production. Then I had to try another type of paper, but when everything was about to come together to finalize it, that paper went out of production also. I could not find a type of paper I liked. I had no choice but to start mixing my own chemical to obtain the image that was in my mind. After the prints were finished, I showed a few to someone who then recommended a few publishers to me. I've picked TBW Books and from that time on things started to roll. I love how they see the photographs and put the book together as storytellers.

What feeling do you get looking at these photos now?
It almost feels like seeing my family because I've seen them so many times in my darkroom. Also I can't ignore feeling the power of photography. For some reason, it seems like photographs age just like good wine. Time will add another dimension of an emotional quality—something you can't see but feel.

Once In Harlem by Katsu Naito is available online and in bookstores.

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