Sunday, May 3, 2009

Back to Okinawa 1980/2009 by Keizo Kitajima

Keizo Kitajima's newest publication via PPP Editions Back to Okinawa 1980/2009 is a revisitation of work he shot in clubs and bars in Koza, a red-light district situated near the US Air Force base of Kadena. Kitajima was a student of Daido Moriyama and set about working the nightlife selling prints to his subjects much like Katsumi Watanabe had been known to do in the late 1960s early 70s in Shinjuku.

Kitajima's plan was to self-publish bi-monthly magazines of this work starting in 1980 called Photo Express Okinawa but only four issues were realized. Each of these booklets - probably the equivalent of the low-fi music 'zines of the time with their DYI tenor - covered a specific period of a few weeks (ie: January 1-15). These short visual diaries were about the equivalent of one dollar and Kitajima priced it to be cheap and affordable to anyone who wanted a copy. This book reproduces all of the images that appeared in those four issues but with a new design and arrangement.

Kitajima's subjects reflect the influence of the near by military base with many photographs portraying Westerners getting drunk, dancing and mixing with the locals. Although this book concentrates on the Okinawa work only and includes no New York photographs, a couple years later Kitajima would live in New York where he would scope out a similar territory in the East Village among the now legendary rock clubs CBGB's, A7, Max’s Kansas City and The Mudd Club.

Kitajima ssys of this work: “Affection, hatred, rejection, acceptance: everything was there in Okinawa and nothing was a given. I wanted to make photographs that transcended all that… My generation was profoundly impacted by America. It is impossible to objectify my feelings about it.”

On the surface, this book's first impression is one of quality and elegance. At seventeen inches tall and a foot wide, the heavy silkscreened cardstock cover is beautifully done and the accent of the black thread binding a nice touch. Most of that excitement disappeared for me as soon as it is opened and with the discovery of 36 pages of cheap newsprint that make up the interior. It isn't just that the newsprint is cheap but since there were no negatives or prints to do proper scans the publisher has scanned from the magazines resulting in images that are completely broken up by the original magazine line screen. High contrast and poorly printed, we struggle to make out what is going on in the photos. Many are translated into blotches of black tone where even the most grand of gesture gets abstracted.

One may argue that, like I mentioned above, this could be comparable to 'zines of the time and honestly I like that thought. The quality does bother me but I often like the low-fi when it works. What is not comparable to 'zines is that the starting price of this newspaper booklet was $100.00 (it is signed by Kitajima and only 250 copies). Now, just a couple weeks after release the price has been raised to $135.00 (feel the panic?). I'm going to leave this one for the collectors and wait to see how the planned 900 page book from Rathole Gallery on Kitajima turns out.

Special thanks to Bryan L. for the loaner copy.


a mind with no ceiling said...

Apart from collectors I hope a few libraries get a copy since the pictures look quite good on your comp. {They look like a more varied Cafe Lehmitz (for lack of a less obvious comparison)}.
That way we could enjoy it and make up our minds on the printing tip, as well as on the whole project.

Jeff Ladd said...


I agree although I doubt that will happen on any large scale. The book is a large format and softcover which makes it somewhat library unfriendly. Plus there are only 250 copies.

I think the choice of paper was to made to help conceal the technical difficulties of the lack of original source material outside of the four printed magazines. It has a presence but I have seen some of this work elsewhere and although it is normally contrasty as well, the newspaper just reduces this too much for me.

I used to be a huge fan of zines from the HC scene of the early to mid-80s and love the format but this just doesn't work for me. Probably there will be many that disagree.

By the way, for HC fans, one of Kitajima's photos from NY in 1981 shows a 13 year old Harley Flannigan (drummer of the Stimulators and later bass player for the Cro-Mags) and I think Josef Ismach the singer from ISM on the dance floor of A7. I had seen this photo many years ago which i think would have been bootlegged in some HC zines of the time.

the photo is here:

Unknown said...

Thanks for that background on the HC zine and scene. Cool pic.

I would probably buy this book if it were about $50...

dolphin said...

Now the subsideraries of Exson/HX
are encouraging photographers to print their 10 or 50 copies limited edition photobooks.

Basically I hate the limited edition photobooks. : )

Great photo workers always consider to print their photobooks which can be housed
in Liberary, not housed at the house of book collectors.

Poor photo workers only want to
print the rare limited edition
to incrase their income.

Adam said...

I have spent some time with this book and must say it is quite beautiful, not to mention the cover. If my opinion were based on price, I would say for $130 that the newsprint is unjustifiable. However, the images are haunting. I believe that this book is essential for those who want to see the legacy of those like Moriyama, Tomatsu, and Kawada live on.

For the price, this is not accessible, and it is a shame that many students will not be able see such a work of art. Even if much of the work is reprinted by Rathole, the book will not be cheap.

Amanda Crowe said...

There are no surviving photographs or negatives from this body of work. The images in this show and the accompanying limited edition book (Back To Okinawa 1980/2009), were generated by scanning the material from the rare, original volumes. Back to Okinawa affords us the opportunity to view this material fresh.