Kazuo Kitai: Students, Workers, Villagers, 1964-1978 @Miyako Yoshinaga

JTF (just the facts): A total of 38 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1964 and 1978; 28 are modern prints made in 2014 or 2015 and 10 are vintage prints. Physical sizes range from roughly 6×9 to 9×13 (or reverse), and the modern prints are available in editions of 10. A small catalog of the exhibit with an essay by Janet Koplos is available from the gallery. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the mid 1960s, the young Japanese photographer Kazuo Kitai made a name for himself by capturing the bristled atmosphere inside various student protests, riots, and resistance movements. His pictures from those days are full of energy, urgency, and restless movement, with blurred flares of light bouncing off helmeted riot squad forces as they become surrounded by burgeoning nighttime crowds. Even his still lifes from this period are brash and rebellious – the simple everyday objects of barricaded college demonstrators (an empty hanger, an umbrella, a roll of toilet paper) are given purpose when set against the expressive painted graffiti covering nearby walls. Given the success of these photographs, we might have expected him to follow this trajectory toward a fruitful career chasing action and conflict.

But in the early 1970s, Kitai did something quietly unexpected – he turned his back on the chaotic city as a subject. While Tomatsu, Moriyama, Nakahira, and many others of significant talent were busy trying to describe the modernizing transformation of the country through the lens of the urban environment, Kitai set off for the country, looking for an alternate set of stories. His travels to an ongoing series of ordinary villages took him away, both physically from the wholesale cultural changes taking place in the cities and stylistically from the prevailing expressive dark grittiness that so many of his contemporaries embraced.

Kitai’s images of the local protests against the construction of the then-new international airport at Narita form a connecting bridge between his youthful work and his later directions. With most of the men gone to the cities for work, the bulk of the protesting that took place was done by the women, children, and elderly who stayed behind. Kitai documents the action from a distance, abstracting the events into the movement of ants on the wide horizon – the forcible eviction becomes a towering billow of black smoke, the arrival of the construction trucks a rolling parade of inevitable progress, and the small group of women facing the police a spirited but clearly impossible effort. His pictures are pared back, with the white expanse of sky and the flat plain creating a broad stage for the theater of conflict taking place a stone’s throw away.

With his photographic style already in flux, Kitai then began his wider wanderings, the next three years of pictures (1970-1973) ultimately brought together as the series Somehow Familiar Places. All of the vintage prints on view in this show come from this project, and their warmer paper gives them a rich, tactile subtlety. Many feel far away and remote (especially from the flashing lights of the city), where snow blows across empty streets, single electric poles stand alone against the whiteness, and low buildings huddle against the wind. Knots of children pose at bus stops, on rough mountain pass pathways, and in village alleyways, seemingly made even smaller by their distance from the photographer; the same can be said for lone walkers who traverse the whispering emptiness of quiet towns. When Kitai gets closer to the buildings, their textures come forward, from pokey thatched roofs and smooth wooden slats, to the dark black angles of rooflines and the bright streaming light coming in through bathhouse windows. As a series, these pictures feel elegantly deserted, the movements of the few inhabitants providing only a momentary break in the enveloping silence.

Kitai’s photographs from To The Villages (1974-1976, for which he won the first Ihei Kimura Memorial Award) move back in a bit closer, engaging villagers with more intimacy. These pictures are more deeply rooted in a traditional culture that has largely resisted the changes of modernization, from wedding day processions and wooden boat ferries to the rituals of harvest burning and Obon lanterns. He also spends more time inside in this series, lingering over misty baths, sliding interior doors, and friendly faces peeking through windows. Outside, he notices the details outsiders would normally overlook – the flicker of wind in the leaves or the blunt usefulness of a dirt path. They are less isolating than his previous works, more quietly celebratory of ways of life that have endured; their tone isn’t nostalgic, but respectful.

Seen together in this project-by-project form, Kitai’s images offer a corrective to the notion that the Japan of the 1960s and 1970s was all dark urban density, that the boldness of the city, with all its ungainly humanity, fast movement, and Western intrusions, was the only facet of the national story worth exploring photographically. Kitai’s modernizations are more subtle, an absence and a slowing rather than a presence and a quickening, the backstory to the mainline narrative. His pictures provide a sense of larger cultural and societal balance, where the hollowing out of the far away villages and the splashier goings on in the cities form two sides of the same coin.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows – the modern prints are $2000 each, while the vintage prints are $6500 each. Kitai’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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