In Volume 5 of our print magazine, we profiled New York City photographer Katsu Naito and his 2011 photobook, Westside Rendezvous, which is comprised of several Meatpacking District streetscapes but mostly portraits of transgender prostitutes that plied their trade there in the afternoons of the late 80s and early 90s.
For those who know the work, a couple of the faces that turn up in Naito’s latest photography show, Day Trip, will be familiar. They are previously unseen portraits of two of the prostitutes interspersed among a painstaking selection of photographs spanning almost 40 years. The photographs are installed above the clothing racks in the unassuming Nepenthes clothing store located in Hells Kitchen, and are arranged in diptychs that resonate and loosely play off each other.
The subject matter ranges from a close-up of just hatched mayflies paired with translucent bubbling water (the Catskills, where Naito fly fishes), to a frozen expanse of Riverside Park, to a verdant Highline way before it was “The Highline,” to portrait outtakes from his soon-to-be-published photobook Once In Harlem, to a pile of dead rats, drowned and washed up on 1st Avenue by Superstorm Sandy, to the aforementioned transgender prostitutes, to a frozen-looking Hunts Point. The earliest images are from the late 80s. The most recent taken this year, maybe last. None of the imagery looks dated but for clues in style, architecture or the make and model of the car parked on the street in the background. The subjects in the photographs are weirdly ever-present.
The selection neatly teeters between urban grime and pastoral calm. The photographs are quiet: everything in them seems hushed. The city streets even seem quiet and are sparsely populated with little in the way of people or traffic. To the extent one can associate a soundscape with Naito’s photographs, it might be the sound of a light wind.
The photographs are exquisitely printed, having come from Naito’s technically exacting hand and personal darkroom. The show divides about in half between square (Hasselblad) and rectangular (Pentax 67) formats. At around 14 inches square (Hasselblad), and 16 by 20 (Pentax 67), they represent the biggest prints he is able to produce on his own. Aside from some color work in fly fishing magazines, Naito works exclusively in black and white where he feels he can register the emotional tone and warmth appropriate to each negative.
He explained the title of the show, Day Trip, as providing the organizational spine for what seems, at first, to be a causally offered selection of years of work. Day Trip, he noted, could be a trip to the corner, or around your neighborhood, a long walk in your city, a day trip out of town (Catskills, Asbury Park, flea-market Pennsylvania), or a trip in your mind, a daydream. The explanation was casual, off-hand even, but seemed to provide lift and heft to what was on show and why.
It would be a mistake, I think, to characterize Naito’s show as being one of a flaneur — an erudite street wanderer casting his voracious eye on urbanity — or snap-and-grab street photography, though he certainly photographs New York, its streets and its people. There is something all together different and unique about Naito’s photographic voice but how so has continually vexed me. These days the description that comes to mind is respectful.
His approach to composition is respectful: there are practically no stolen shots in Naito’s oeuvre, rather people, things even, are framed frontally, mid to close up. There is a hesitancy to his photography (as opposed to the disposable immediacy of Instagram, a platform Naito tried and quickly tired of). For example, at the front of show are two Sanders-esque portraits of black, homeless men. Naito explained that he rarely photographs the homeless, finding it exploitative, but that with these two he felt it was OK. He knew them from his walks into the Meatpacking District and had conversed with them from time to time. Even his photograph of the George Washington Bridge taken from afar exudes a quiet respect. The print is precise and perfect, but not in that show-offy hyper-technical way that drags down the work of so many B&W “masters.”
Naito’s patience and reticence and, by contemporary standards, his glacial pace in printing his negatives and exhibiting and publishing them borders on heroic. Or one could say, respectful of time and subject.
In a few weeks Naito will be debuting his second photobook, Once In Harlem, at the NY Art Book Fair with his publisher, TBW Books. He first visited Harlem in 1987, settled there in 1988 but only recently printed the negatives he took back then. If you happen to attend, seek out their table and, if Naito is there, please introduce yourself. We hope to present a lengthy profile on him and his book soon. Until then, see if you can mange your own day trip down 38th street and go see this quiet, friendly and dignified show.
All images copyright Katsu Naito.