An Outsider’s Lens of 1960s New York

Japanese photographer Sumiharu Watanabe may not have known enough about the US to understand the changes taking place in New York City, but his lens captured them.

Sumiharu Watanabe worked at Nikon USA in New York between 1962 and 1964. As a newcomer to the city, he wandered Manhattan with his camera. New York 1962–1964, published in a limited edition by photographer Fumio Tanai, features Watanabe’s photographs from that time — some previously published, and many previously unpublished — and offers a fascinating look at New York City in the early 1960s. Watanabe’s images display many of the typical tropes of New York — subways, Washington Square Park, buskers — but his outsider’s take feels fresh. Without saccharine imagery or clichés, for the most part, the young photographer captured the city with a sense of realism, tinged with affection for his temporary home.

Some of the book’s best photographs are those in which Watanabe makes an appearance. He’s an unseen presence, but we can tell that the people he captures are looking at him, performing for him, amused by him, or feel he is intruding into their lives. In one image, a group of young girls sing in the park on what feels like an autumn afternoon. The diffuse light of a cloudy sky indicates a city that is preparing for winter. The girls pose and perform for Watanabe; three of the four look at him, and at us. In another photograph, a mixed-race couple on the street stares at Watanabe. The woman looks concerned, but also curious. The man puts on a stern face. What did these people think of the young man behind the camera?

For that matter, what did he think of them? It’s easy to see his affection for the city, but some of his images evince a coldness and confusion toward its inhabitants. He is not always in dialogue with the people he takes pictures of. Sometimes he merely captures them as specimens of a strange place. For example, a young woman on a summer evening turns around from a food stand and happens to see Watanabe capturing her likeness. The young man behind the counter notices at the same moment and looks unsure.

His images show a changing city, which Watanabe unwittingly captured with fresh eyes. There are mixed race couples, protests on the streets, hippies with long hair, and beatniks. Watanabe may not have known enough about the US to understand the changes taking place in the city, but his lens captured them.

Of the three photographers — Gary Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander — featured in the groundbreaking 1967 photography exhibition New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art, which set the tone of American photography for decades to come, curator John Szarkowski wrote: “They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as the source of all wonder and fascination and value — no less precious for being irrational.” A transplant from Japan, perhaps Watanabe saw the irrationality, terror, and wonder of the city more starkly. As this book evidences, he clearly liked the real world, and his images reflect the same terrain and the same sense of inquiry into reality as the renowned New Documents photographers. In some of his strongest images, the use of shadow, perspective, and framing evoke the movement in photography onto the streets. These works exhibit the lyricism that soon entered into realist photography. Watanabe’s images are a kind of forecast for the direction of the medium, and New York, in the years to come.

Sumiharu Watanabe: New York, 1962–1964 is published by and available from Fumio Tanai.

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