Keizo Kitajima on capturing New York’s vibrant street life in the 80s

Words by Ayla Angelos

The Japanese photographer has reached great acclaim for his urban shots of people across the globe. But his New York photos in particular – the gritty and allusive – have a profound and lasting impact.

Keizo Kitajima is known globally for his urban street shots, capturing people – temporary strangers – as they roamed the streets of Tokyo, New York and Eastern Europe. The Japanese photographer set many benchmarks in the 70s and 80s with his unusually rough and confrontational style, to such lengths that he ended up publishing numerous series of this ilk, including his famed work documenting the Afro-American community in 80’s New York. But to simply refer to Keizo as a street photographer would be to dilute his practice, for his work depicts more than just an immediate snap of humanity; it encloses a part of history.

“Photography was one of the most cutting-edge and powerful genres of expression in Japan and I was very interested in it.”

Simultaneously, Keizo counts himself fortunate to have joined the Daido Moriyama class at the Workshop Photography School – a profound avant-garde photography school that launched in 1975, and is also the publisher of a photography periodical with the same name. This was followed by the arrival of Provoke, the “most radical and critical group”, and printed Japanese photo magazines led by some of the county’s best-known photographers and art critics, like Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira, Koji Taki. “At the same time, Japan was undergoing rapid urbanization, Keizo adds. “I was obsessed with the magical power of the city. To me, the big city looked like chaos, holding both light and darkness. While wandering through the maze-like alleys of Tokyo, I was looking to encounter something real.”

This inquisition led to Keizo affixing his lens onto those passing by, redefining snapshot photography in a way that showed an unmatched aesthetic and eye for the immediate subject. An entire archive of imagery on the topic was soon built, like the experimental series Photo Express (1979) that captures the people of Shinjuku; as well as his more gritty body of work photographing the occupants of New York as they gallivanted the clubs and streets. This project, in particular, was the result of a six-month trip to the city during the 80s. “Since World War II, Japan has been heavily influenced by the United States politically, economically and culturally in the postwar regime that began with the rule of the US military,” explains Keizo. “Before I went to New York, I had been taking pictures in two cities, Tokyo and Koza in Okinawa.”

His reasons for photographing in New York specifically came shortly after the Workshop Photography School, wherein Keizo founded a space called CAMP with Moriyama and a few others. Located in Shinjuku 2-chome – “where it used to be a government-approved prostitution district” – Keizo would take pictures at night and exhibit the imagery at CAMP every month. And throughout the Vietnam War, this district and its US military base would be especially busy with American soldiers during the night, and Keizo would accompany Okinawans, Americans and people from Southeast Asia to gatherings at this location. “I heard as many moving stories as sad ones at Koza,” he notes. “While shooting Tokyo and Koza in the latter half of the 70s, I gradually wanted to shoot New York, which was said to be ‘another country’ and had a special presence.” Doing just that, the photographer packed his bags and visited in 1982, 1983 and 1987, staying for a total of a year and a half. “At that time, New York was full of garbage as if a trash can had been turned over, and the streets in the valley of the skyscraper sometimes seemed to directly connect to the alleys of the Third World. It was a huge attraction to me.”

New York during the 80s was notoriously difficult, as residents would have to wade through the economic fallout from the decade preceding. Harlem, for example – a New York neighborhood and home to a large proportion of African-American residents – was hard-hit by the housing crisis in the 70s, and those who could afford to leave would do so. A decade later and, although employment was steadily on the rise, crime was still paramount throughout the city.

The other face of New York was comparatively dazzling: think Andy Warhol walking the pavement, David Bowie or Grace Jones encountered at a nightclub. So when Keizo visited, he set out with one plan: to photograph as many people as possible without any clear structure or goal in mind. “I kept walking every day from morning until night with small but fresh surprises,” he recalls. “Of course, New York at that time was a very dangerous city, so I had always taken pictures carefully.” In this sense, he’d avoid any unexpected occurrences that might escalate into an unwanted picture – and therefore an unwanted scene – by keeping on the move, and also by visiting clubs and bars on the weekends from receiving recommendations in the newspaper Studio Voice, released every Wednesday at midnight.

Keizo would shoot during both the fleeting moments as well those where he’d stop and ask for permission. Most imperative, though, was his spontaneous approach to the process, adhering to lack of rules or methods when out with his camera. Reflecting back, Keizo shares some fond memories: “I was happy to have the opportunity to meet many artists such as Andy Warhol and On Kawara, but for me as Japanese, having a close Korean friend was one of the most wonderful things. August 15th, the anniversary of the end of the war in Japan, is also the anniversary of the liberation from the Japanese colony in Korea. I joined an outdoor celebration party with Korean friends and enjoyed Korean barbecue. This wouldn’t happen unless it was in New York.”

Pictures like this tend to have a lasting impact, and not just for a few years – for decades, and maybe even more. It was a prominent moment in history for New York, as the following years would see gentrification and increased employment, wealth and business rise to the fore. Of course, there are many positives to this, but Keizo’s imagery depicts a rawness that we might not ever see again, done so through the allusive and gritty documentation of his subjects. “No one can directly see the whole body let alone the face,” he comments on the impact from his imagery. “I believe we have a lot of things we can only learn through looking at others. On the streets of New York in the 80s, there were occasional moments when I felt that human history itself was actually exposed, and hopefully, my photographs would be the same.”

All images © Keizo Kitajima.

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