keizo kitajima's gritty street photography, from nyc to the ussr
A new exhibition in Los Angeles collects 25 of the esteemed Japanese photographer’s raw portraits, street snaps, and nightclub shots from the 70s through the 90s.
Many of New York City's most beloved documentarians are themselves New Yorkers: Diane Arbus hailed from the Upper East Side, Garry Winogrand from the Bronx, and Helen Levitt from Brooklyn. Yet others, like Japanese photographer Keizo Kitajima, aren't even close to being locals.
Kitajima spent the late 70s chronicling Tokyo's streets and nightlife in a rapid succession of DIY-style exhibitions, until his professor at Tokyo's Workshop School, photographer Daido Moriyama, encouraged him to expand his practice. In the early 80s, Kitajima arrived in New York City, then traveled to the dissolving Soviet Union a decade later. Somewhere in between, he captured frenetic street shots in Seoul, Hong Kong, London, Paris, Prague, Berlin, Budapest, and Warsaw — at times in super-saturated color, others in grainy black and white. New Street History, a newly opened exhibition at Los Angeles's Little Big Man Gallery, collects 25 images from Kitajima's diverse projects, distilling 20 turbulent years of punk exploration.
Born in 1954, Kitajima began studying under Moriyama at 19. Together, the two photographers helped form CAMP, an independent gallery in the Shinjuku district where Kitajima would debut his seminal series Photo Express: Tokyo (1979). That year, he created a new exhibition of photographs each month for 12 months — nocturnal shots he'd snap while weaving through the city's bars and clubs. Kitajima covered CAMP's walls in these images, some of them captured just hours before show openings. A few of these early works appear in New Street History, identifiable by a gritty black-and-white aesthetic reminiscent of punk flyers. The images themselves are punk, too: made haphazardly, compulsively, urgently, with a sense of irreverence for established rules and forms. This methodology served Kitajima well two years later, when he landed in New York City.
New Street History also incorporates some of Kitajima's 1981 images, taken over six months roaming NYC's rough streets and raucous clubs. These black-and-white pictures, much like the Photo Express series, abound with punk energy and youth, but they also capture the city's more serious side. A decade later, Kitajima returned to NYC for his tome, A.D. 1991 — this time capturing the Big Apple in full-color closeups. This series, and the one which preceded it (Kitajima's commission from Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun to visit 15 republics during the Soviet Union's rocky dissolution in 1990) are also woven throughout New Street History. The exhibition is an enduring testament to an artist and his unflinching desire to document of the world around him.
'New Street History' is on view at Little Big Man Gallery through November 27. More information here.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Keizo Kitajima