When photographer Katsu Naito moved from his native Tokyo to New York in the late 1980s, his lens was immediately drawn to the legendary uptown neighbourhood of Harlem. His work, essentially in black and white film, strikingly captures the powerful faces, bodies and styles of its inhabitants. Together, we discuss why he was and is still so eager to document the soul of a wavering street culture.
Your book, Once in Harlem, was recently released and features some of your most prominent work, dating back to the early ‘90s.To start with, could you tell us what drew you to Harlem from your native Japan in the first place?
Before I moved to Harlem in 1988, I lived on the Upper West Side for almost five years. It was a very convenient place to be but I wanted change my living routine. The best way for me to do this was to move to another part of the city. At the same time, my desire of taking pictures in Harlem became stronger after a first visit there. But I felt that it would be a very difficult challenge to photograph the neighbourhood without living there. So in the end, I was drawn to it in a very natural way.
What was it about the legendary uptown neighbourhood that you felt so eager to document? The people or the setting?
It was both. I remember saying back then that Harlem would start to change soon – and that is what I used to say to myself in the ‘80s. There were a lot of abandoned buildings everywhere, the air was filled with a devastating and empty feeling. A crack epidemic in New York was ongoing, gunfire and an endless amount of murders. I wanted to photograph Harlem before it started to change. I gradually learned to live in the neighbourhood and to become a part of it.
Street culture is at the heart of the area, people hang out on the street in many different ways. That’s what I wanted to document above all. I wanted to photograph people in their daily life setting and in the most natural way possible. I found beauty and positive energy in each and every one of them. People in Harlem would speak with their heart or not talk at all. I enjoyed their company and being on the street with my camera. As I mentioned before, the neighbourhood was already starting to change in the early ‘90s so I desperately wanted to immortalize it on film.
Was it important for you to position yourself as an ‘outsider’ or an observer? By this I mean, was a necessary distance important in your documenting process or, on the contrary, did people need to feel familiar around you before they got their picture taken?
If I am documenting a small community, I have to be accepted first. It may take quite some time before they are comfortable enough and I can start photographing them. This is like being an outsider who wants to be a part of the community. As time went by, the atmosphere became more friendly, I might be sitting on a chair in the street with them, sharing thoughts and chatting about Harlem and then the feeling of being an outsider slowly vanishes. I felt rather at ease with them. If I am on the street casting to shoot/scouting, it usually takes a few minutes or less to photograph him or her. It’s very important for me to position myself as an observer but not as an outsider.
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After taking pictures of so many people, I assume you have several anecdotes about some of them. Could you please share a remarkable one with us?
I like to run almost every morning when the weather gets warm. I kept on noticing the same people and one in particular who struck me was an elderly man, who was always running at the same time as I was. My respect towards him grew daily and, a few months later, I started thinking about photographing him in the morning and just went ahead and asked him.
I photographed him the next day and sent him the print. He was thrilled by it because his grandfather had been in a painting with the same background I shot him in front of. I will never forget him. That was a few years ago and today he still runs every day. He has been doing so since 1971.
Portraits make up for a major part of your portfolio. However, your Central Park series features beautiful, eerie shots of water and twisted branches, quite far away from any form of human interference. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
I am fascinated by nature and studying it. The photos I took by the river in the Catskills, New York, is a very personal project and I have photographed the landscapes there every year for the past ten years. However, I have not printed them yet. There is also a little forest in Central Park. When you are there, it is so easy to forget that you are in Manhattan. I wanted to immortalize the timeless feeling and the sounds, because it does not feel anything like being in New York.
Faces, desolate landscapes and nakedness are all central to your work. How do they fit together and what are you trying to communicate?
It is all related to my senses. I try my best to integrate every little bit of information about a person if I am photographing him/her. If I am photographing trees and rivers I try to capture their surroundings and understand how time travels there. When I start not to feel like myself anymore, then I can start photographing. Regardless of my subject, I always have the same approach.
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Why black and white only?
I work with black and white film to make gelatine silver print. That way, I have total control of processing it and I simply love black and white film photography!
How would you describe, twenty years on, the faces of the people and the atmosphere that remains from ‘90s Harlemstreet culture? Do you still live in the neighbourhood and would you be able to capture the same thing in 2018?
I have been living in East Harlem for the past twenty years now and it has changed a lot. The smell of an old Harlem is getting difficult more and more to recognize nowadays. I still go out in the neighbourhood and take pictures every now and then. I see changes in almost everything that I have laid my eyes on since the ‘90s. Capturing it all with my photographs will make it possible to understand what life was like back then in a multitude of ways, since time will have sealed it all in one picture.
Do you reckon there is still such a thing as street culture in New York City today? If you were twenty-five years old today, which part of the city would you turn your lens towards?
In my opinion, street culture has been taken over by web culture. I’m curious to know how one would define street culture in our age. But I know that, if I were in my mid 20s today, I would choose to visit every state capital city across the United States and photograph the many faces of the people who live there. I also love visiting places like India and China to photograph how people’s lives are rapidly changing.
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