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In the first page of his latest book, Kazuo Kitai admits that when it comes to considering his photographic legacy, it’s his monochrome work which comes to mind. However, back in the golden age of the Japanese Camera magazines- the 1970s- he notes that most of his commissioned picture series were shot on color film.
COLOR Somehow Familiar Places is a crisp, bright look at two sets of his relatively unknown color work. The first half focuses on Japan, as Kitai’s travels through the countryside and seasons and then back into Tokyo passing through a geisha quarter in Yushima then eastward to Kiba the traditional lumber center of the city. One can feel reverberations of the earlier Edo period in the pose of a lumber dealer, seen with his pole atop a flotilla of large logs in the river, and a maiko, standing on a steep flight of stone steps.
I recently made a visit to this very staircase. At his Canon gallery show a few years back Kitai told me it was in a place called Yushima in Tokyo. I actually knew of this spot from my own wlks around the city and so, on a fine saturday afternoon, I headed north from Ochanomizu station, crossing Hijiri Bridge and climbed up the hill to Yushima-Tenjin. A little before the shrine, on my right, I soon came to the top of the steps. I looked down to see a newer set of sharp concrete steps flanked by handrails. As I descended I realized how much steeper they were than his picture suggests.
Finding the spot where Kitai stood, I looked back up. No geisha here. In fact, there are no more in this place as far as I know. The neighborhood at the top of the hill has recently been redeveloped into a zone of expensive, gleaming high-rise condos. From this spot the construction of yet another tower loomed directly over the staircase- the clamor of welding and hammers obliterated any sense of calm or charm one feels in Kitai’s original picture. So it goes.
The second half of the book features previously unpublished pictures from his two-month trip to France in 1972- his first time abroad. I’ve never been to France, so I can only imagine how these same street corners look today. Unlike the Yushima staircase above, perhaps they might be instantly recognizable to those who live there now. To me, his pictures of France have a sense of reservation- but each frame shares the same sense of clarity and kindness that’s found in his work in Japan.
The past several years have seen many fine publications of work drawn from the archives of well-known photographers. （This is great- I believe that the more work of an artist you can see, the better.）
I imagine this sudden increase in new, old work is the result of a few factors- the first being, thanks to decades’ worth of Japanese photographic magazines, that there is simply a lot of good work out there to pull from. Improvements in technology means that old slides or prints can be scanned and shared with new kinds of printing presses.
There’s also the fact that well-known （and particularly in Kitai’s case, beloved ） photographers have established fan bases and （Kitai, again） have twenty-something books already under their belts. This is doubtlessly attractive to publishers.
There’s also undeniably a nostalgia factor as well. Kitai’s Japan- a world bathed in a gloriously benevolent color palette- glows with a sort of aching innocence that’s reflected in the smiles and poses of the people he met.
His Japan is somehow familiar, and yet, seen from the trials and tribulations of the early 2020s, feels somewhat unfamiliar- a world now five decades ago that grows more distant. A world which, had it ever existed outside of his pictures, flipping through these pages, seems something too good to have possibly been true.
Yet thankfully for Kitai and his camera and the rest of us, it at one time, and one place, was.
COLOR Somehow Familiar Scenes is available online at shashasha
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