A Young Japanese Photographer’s View of Harlem in the Nineties

In 1983, at the age of eighteen, Katsu Naito left his small Japanese
city of Maebashi, in the Gunma Prefecture, and headed to the United
States. “New York City is a place for kids like you to go and get
disciplined,” his mother had told him as she scanned ads for overseas
job offers. He didn’t argue. At the time, Naito’s greatest love was
disco, and his mother, unwittingly, was ushering him straight to its
center. For his first three years in the U.S., Naito was contracted to
work as an assistant chef at a Japanese restaurant on Columbus Avenue, a
job that helped him get a green card. He spoke little English, but he’d
go dancing at the Paradise Garage night club, and at the end of each day
he found “a kind of calm,” he said, in looking at books by Diane Arbus,
which he browsed on the shelves of A Photographer’s Place, on Mercer
Street. Her photographs reflected something of his own wanderings along
the city streets that he had not yet found a way to express. “They just
stole my heart,” Naito told me. A sushi chef at the restaurant showed
him how to work a Leica, and how to develop film.

In the spring of 1988, Naito moved to 112th Street and St. Nicholas
Avenue, in Harlem. It was the height of the crack epidemic. The remains
of burned and demolished buildings dotted the neighborhood. From the
window of his third-floor apartment, Naito watched money disappear into
the Lucite turnstile windows of a deli and little brown paper bags pop
out. Inside, the store’s shelves stocked only some laundry detergent and
a few cans of food. A Japanese newcomer with a camera was viewed with
suspicion. Kids, assuming Naito was a cop, called him “Five-O.” The men
who gathered daily at a corner newsstand looked straight through him
when he approached. “They didn’t even see me,” Naito said.

For months, Naito spent his days off walking up and down Lenox Avenue,
with either his Nikon F3, or his Leica CL, or, later, his Pentax 67
slung over his shoulder, but he didn’t take any photos. When he bought a
small tripod for the Pentax, he carried that in plain sight, too,
continuing his rounds without once clicking the shutter. Gradually, he
began noticing the same faces in the same spots. Eventually, they began
to recognize him. Now the neighborhood kids asked what he was up to. Oh,
you’re from here, they said. When Naito worked up the courage to ask
if he could take his neighbors’ pictures, no one turned him down.

Like Arbus’s early portraits in Central Park and Washington Square Park,
Naito’s early-nineties pictures, which are collected in the new book
Once in Harlem,”
are both of a piece with their surroundings and startlingly direct in
their gaze. Arbus, shooting with a Rolleiflex, was able to meet her
subjects eye to eye. Naito managed to achieve that same mutual gaze by
inserting himself into his subjects’ everyday world. Here is the candid
happiness of a boy cradling his father’s chin as he perches on his
shoulders, his father carrying the child’s plastic toy gun. Here are two
identically dressed sisters clasping hands in the park. Inspired by the
“American West” portraits of another hero of his, Richard Avedon, Naito
eventually set up a plein-air studio on the sidewalk outside his
apartment and invited passersby to step before his Pentax against a
white backdrop, lifting them briefly out of the landscape. In this
series of richly toned black-and-white portraits, Naito’s camera finds
an unguarded gentleness behind a teen-ager’s tough veneer, and the
natural beauty of a person allowing herself, briefly, to see and be
seen.

In the years he lived and photographed in Harlem, Naito also made
portraits of trans streetwalkers and sex workers in the meatpacking
district. (A collection of those photographs, “West Side Rendezvous,”
was published, by Wild Life Press, in 2011.) He lives in East Harlem now
and continues to photograph throughout the city, but until recently he
had shelved the pictures of his neighborhood. “I spent a lot of time
printing, to get the emotional quality I wanted to achieve. I would get
attached to each negative,” he said. “The funny thing is, you remember
exactly how you shot them. You remember these kids. You remember the
day. You remember the families. I wanted to be able to see the air in
the streets again.”