25 Sep '19 OWL MEETS: NEW YORK-based photographer KATSU NAITO captures pre-gentrification Harlem.

In 1983 KATSU NAITO swapped the small JAPANESE city of MAEBASHI for NEW YORK CITY. The BIG APPLE was not as it is today. Crack cocaine was the common currency in a city on the brink of bankruptcy. 

It was quite the eye-opener for an 18-year-old with limited English.

KATSU observed it all through the lens of his camera. He quickly became enamoured with HARLEM in particular. Over time, it would become a place he called home. And it's one that he captured with an eye only a resident could possess.

His photographs, taken between the years 1990 and 1995, provide an intimate portrait of HARLEM and its people pre-gentrification. 

The work is captured in KATSU's splendid book ONCE IN HARLEM, available here 

OWL: Hi Katsu, for those of our readers who may not have seen your work can you briefly introduce yourself…

KATSU NAITO: I was born and raised in Japan until 18 years old. Then in 1983 I moved to New York City as a contracted chef at a Japanese restaurant for three years. However, after a year-and-a-half, I was fired and had a choice of going back to Japan or staying in New York. Something was just starting to grow inside of me and I wanted to find out what it was. So I decided to stay in New York and I am still here today.

OWL: "My mother said 'Kids like you should go to a place like that to learn discipline.'"

That’s a great quote you gave about your mother’s rationale to encourage you to move from rural Japan to New York, in 1983, to take a job in a restaurant. It was, of course, a period when New York was on the cusp of bankruptcy and in the midst of a crack epidemic. Did her opinion change when you relayed what life was like, or did she get an edited version?

KATSU NAITO: We never discussed drugs but when she found out that I took happy pills when I would go out to the clubs to listen to music she was a bit upset. That was in the early years of my New York life, and lasted until my early 20s.

OWL: Is it fair to say it was a bit of a cultural shock when you first arrived?

KATSU NAITO: Of course. Moving from a city that had a population of 280,000 to New York was to genuinely experience the city that never sleeps. 

OWL: From an outsiders’ perspective New York in that period seemed to be the most exciting place on earth with everything that was going in disco, hip-hop and the art scene of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat etc. How aware were you at the time of being at the epicentre of something so special?

KATSU NAITO: It was a mind-blowing experience in the 80s. From the street cultures to the club scene. New York had a lot more profound energy back then, rather than being a showcase of super capitalism.

OWL: On the flip side, as someone who lived it, is there a tendency for those of us who didn’t to romanticise what life was like? Pre widespread gentrification and the change in the city post Rudy Giuliani (for better or worse), I imagine it often felt like quite a dangerous place to live?

KATSU NAITO: It really was. You just had to watch yourself and not put yourself in any unwanted situations.

OWL: How much did the experience of witnessing crime become a part of every day life?

KATSU NAITO: I’ve seen a lot of activities through my Harlem apartment window. For example, watching a gun being fired at an abandoned building or up in the air. Then there was firing a machine gun through the shutter door of the fried chicken place, or murder in the full moon light. Also the block parties...something else. All are memories now. I often wonder how did I manage to stay in that area.

It shocked the hell out of me when I heard gun shots outside and started to smell the gun powder in my apartment for the first time. Unfortunately, you soon get used to it, or become numb about it, because the guns happened so often.

OWL: Was photography part of your life before you moved to America?

KATSU NAITO: I was not keen on photography but I always had a camera with me to photograph my friends.

OWL: You’ve said in a previous interview how you lived in the Upper West Side five years prior to moving to Harlem, the subject of much of your work, so what was it that drew you to that part of the city?

KATSU NAITO: It was my dream to visit Harlem one day and to photograph there. It felt a little awkward walking with a camera in my backpack. I strongly felt that I cannot photograph Harlem without living it and being a part of it. It had a totally different temperature from any other place in New York City, but it's not a bad place. The gentrification wasn’t starting yet, but seeing abandoned buildings all over the area would tell you a lot about this town. Simply, I wanted to take pictures of Harlem.

OWL: When you got there, what was it about Harlem that compelled you to document the area? Was the need to express yourself visually perhaps a reaction to struggling to do so verbally because of the initial language barrier?

KATSU NAITO: It took some time for me to decide what kind of image I should photograph. I used a 35mm camera mostly to snap around the area first when exercising my luck on the street. I truly introduced myself to Harlem when I started not to feel any danger when carrying my camera around with me.

Then I started to think it’s  time for me to carry the Pentax 67. This camera stands out a lot, but since people had already seen me around it was not hard at all to ask to photograph their portrait. This is how it all started. I always had in mind how can I get closer to them in terms of photographic distance. I think I found a way of understanding my existence through photographing people. In this sense, yes, that is so true that photography was my way of communicating. 

OWL: As a young Japanese man seeking to fit into a tough black neighbourhood, how long did it take you to become ingratiated?

KATSU NAITO: I must say it took two years for me to get comfortable living there. When you are living in a place like Harlem, you're watched all the time. I needed to let them know that I am not their enemy.

The deli across the street from me was the base for the gangsters, where they stored all the fire arms. What that meant, ironically, was this area was protected from outsiders. Despite having a bad name, it did have a warm local feel to the area. I found out that the FBI was observing this deli for years and finally they were all were arrested. All this happened after I moved out of Harlem.

OWL: Bruce Davidson said: “Give me a camera to play with and I’m happy. So that’s me, that’s the best of me: when I keep my mouth shut and pick up the camera for this silent endeavour.” That’s a nice way of putting it, but was it different with you, in that you had to first win the trust of your subjects in order to do portraiture work?

KATSU NAITO: I think I was able to photograph them because they all knew I lived in Harlem. I lived down the block. This was the magic words to break the ice with strangers. I never wanted to carry my camera in the bag.

OWL: Your work is prescient in that it’s a form of street photography that documents the fashions of a particular era, before street photography became the common practice of anyone with an iPhone. Can true street photography exist when everyone is so self aware these days?

KATSU NAITO: It would have a different essence under the name of street photography.

OWL: Who are your influences? Diane Arbus seems an obvious one with regards your series West Size Rendezvous, is there anyone else?

KATSU NAITO: Yes, Diane Arbus, along with Richard Avedon, August Sander and Yoshihiko Ueda.

OWL: When you pick up on certain details in your images the age/era of your shots become apparent, although do you agree shooting in black and white gives a timeless feel to many compositions?

KATSU NAITO: I think so. The black and white photography simplifies the information that is in the frame, and I like to have total control of film process and printing.

OWL: There’s a beautiful shot you took of two young kids on a bike. In the foreground the kid looks a little suspicious, while his friend behind him is breaking out into a grin. It struck me as perhaps being symbolic of your own journey of winning over the people of Harlem…?

KATSU NAITO: I just let them be who they are in front of camera. For that specific shot, it was taken in front of my apartment.

OWL: The book you published ONCE IN HARLEM documents HARLEM in the 90s – crumbling buildings, destitute streets etc – which is quite unrecognisable to how it is now. At the time, were you aware of documenting an area primed for change?

KATSU NAITO: Yes. I was always saying to my downtown friends that Harlem will change sometime soon.

OWL: ONCE IN HARLEM was shot between 1990 and 1995 – yet was only published in the last few years. Did you consider showing your photographs at the time, or was it always the intention for them to be used retrospectively?

KATSU NAITO: I was not ready to show my work at that time. I did print for myself but it was not enough to edit then. I had to find a way of making final prints and spend a year on the test printing. I was not in a hurry to publish but wanted to show the work in good time.

OWL: There’s another shot (first image) you took of three kids in front of a tower block that looks like it could be knocked over with a bowling ball. It would make an incredible album cover – has no one ever approached you about using it?

KATSU NAITO: Not as of today.

OWL: Another shot I love captures a cross section of a street probably no more than 20-30 feet long. I counted 20 people, with five different groups in conversation with one another, many of whom have taken chairs out on the sidewalk, while another group of kids sit on a car. There’s a real sense of a bustling community. Is street culture, of relating to one another on a simple human level, dying as a result of living in a digital age? How is Harlem now in this respect, compared to how it was then? 

KATSU NAITO: That shot is taken from my window. I saw it every day. Harlem has lost its organic street cultures. To hang out in the street was the main activity and I have not seen it these days. The deli on the right is the one I had mentioned earlier.

OWL: Do you still see or speak to any of the people you took pictures of? What’s your primary reaction to looking at them now?

KATSU NAITO: I see them a lot in my darkroom! I still have a reaction now, but there was a time that I didn’t touch the Harlem negatives for many years. Unfortunately, I lost contact with all of them and was hoping someone in the book would come to meet me. It is my wish to meet them again.

OWL: What type of photography projects are you working on now? Given your previous experience in the fashion industry working for Post Overalls, a study of the Garment District in New York would be amazing…(hint, hint!)

KATSU NAITO: That’s a brilliant idea! Maybe we can build the story and publish it. I’ve been working on a portrait of New York, albeit one of a different ethic, cultural and religious background.