Waikiki has exploded since the summer of ’73, when Eric Yanagi, then a 22-year-old commercial photographer struggling to make rent, set off into its side streets with his camera and $500 of State money to document a city in transition. The state was rich with tourism, and government money could be spent on art, so he applied for a grant and was awarded. Using a Minolta SRT 101, three lenses (a 28mm, 55mm and 135mm) and TriX handrolled film, Yanagi shot somewhere between 200-300 rolls of the then-cheaper black and white film. The shy Yanagi pulled himself from his comfort zone to make portraits of strangers on the street and in their homes. Forty years after developing what he estimates as 8,000 negatives in a homemade darkroom, Yanagi has self-published a selection of these images in Waikiki’ 73. Here is a small sampling, supported by quotes from the photographer.
The most important challenge I knew I would have to overcome was my reluctance in engaging strangers. I assumed it could be done, because I’ve seen all these books of other photographers who had somehow done it. I made an attempt at rationally approaching strangers and seeing what happened. It was taking pictures of people on the sidewalk, then later on pounding on doors and asking if I could photograph them in their kitchens or living rooms, and to my surprise, they were more welcoming than suspicious. That was one of the more important lessons of the whole process.
Books I was reading while doing these: Robert Frank’s The Americans, a few by Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street. That was a bad part of Harlem, man. He photographed those people in their homes, which had to have taken serious guts. I was impressed with his gumption. I had this in mind when I would pound on doors. I realized I was following a tradition.
I’d say, “Hi, I’m a local guy, doing a photographic documentary of Waikiki,” and two-thirds would say, “Come in.” I had very little difficulty with people in the lower income brackets. It’s rich people that would never let me in.
In general, most photographers tend to have gotten into photography because of their reclusive nature. They’re not usually the most gregarious, and that’s true in my case, but particularly more so when I was younger. When you’re in high school, not knowing which group you fit in with, it can be hard socially. But when you have a camera, it’s some excuse to be there; you can point it at a pretty girl and can get away with it, because you’re performing some sort of service. It still works.
I was actually more interested in the people that live in little houses 10 blocks in, closer to the Ala Wai canal, because that’s the side of Waikiki that most people are not familiar with. If you google Waikiki and look at the thousands of images that come up, you see resort properties, the white sand beach–you normally don’t see families in their living room on Ala Wai Boulevard.
For most foreigners, Waikiki is instantly recognizable, so it had its own intrinsic appeal, but also from a photographic standpoint, it’s going to have a wide variety of people and situations, a more unique visual style than other places. Also, it was going through a huge change; some of those places would never be seen again.