Osamu James Nakagawa: The Banta Cliffs

The minute you pick up the camera you begin to lie- or tell your own truth. You make subjective judgments every step of the way- in how you light the subject, in choosing the moment of exposure, in cropping the print. It’s just a matter of how far you choose to go.

– Richard Avedon, 1967

As we all stood there listening to Osamu James Nakagawa describe the horrid yet intriguing description of the Battle of Okinawa, with his Banta series behind him, I couldn’t help but visualize the families jumping to their death from these jagged, steep and intricate cliffs. If I stared hard enough I could even begin to see their faces’ developing in Nakagawa’s incredibly razor sharp archival inkjet prints.

Osamu James Nakagawa

Osamu James Nakagawa’s series, Banta, is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the exhibition, After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age, on view through May 27th, 2013  and a subsection of a larger exhibition, Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop. I had the privilege to partake in a walking tour of the exhibit with Nakagawa himself, along with his New York representative, Esa Epstein from Sepia Eye, amongst others.

Nakagawa was born in 1962 in NYC later moving to Tokyo as a youth. After 15 years, he moved back to the United States to Houston, Texas. After graduating with an MFA from the University of Houston, he had his first show in New York with En Foco, titled “ Toward the Center”; as part of  En Foco’s Touring Gallery Exhibition in 1993. He has also been featured in the Nueva Luz: volume 6:3 and the commemorative issue, volume 7:2.

The exhibition, Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop and the subsection where Nakagawa is featured, After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age, is an exploration of manipulated photography. Mia Fineman, the Met’s Assistant Curator and the organizer of this exhibition, described her definition of a manipulated photograph not as staged images, but as “an image you see significantly differing from what stood in front of the camera at a single moment in time.”

During Nakagawa’s brief but informative explanation of his Banta series, he describes his trip to Okinawa, alone, in 2001. He ventured to the Peace Museum and War Memorial, located on the southern tip of Okinawa: a desolate and seemingly evacuated area of the island. There, he watched a colorchome 8mm film of people running and jumping off the banta – the steep cliffs.

That footage was from the Battle of Okinawa, where 200, 000 people died – 100,000 of those deaths were civilians, and many faced their last moments jumping off the exact cliffs Nakagawa saw in the film and later photographed. He walked out of the museum, saw the blue sky and then started seeing the images he had seen in the film – he could only try and imagine what had gone wrong there.

Osamu James Nakagawa in from of his Banta series.

Nakagawa then explains his process of stitching together multiple vertical images to create single vivid and sharp depictions of these cliffs, all the while subconsciously creating images that reflected the style of Japanese scroll paintings.  As he desaturated the colors he began seeing images within the cliffs, such as faces and spirits.

Osamu James Nakagawa explaining his developing process.

During the time of this series, the Japanese government decided to remove the Battle of Okinawa from their history books – essentially erasing this tramuatic and crucial turning point in Okinawan history. The mass suicides of entire families and communities of Okinawa were being dissolved by the Japanese government.

Banta, 2008. Archival inkjet print mounted on aluminum board , 20" X 60"   ©James Nakagawa
Banta, 2008. Archival inkjet print on aluminum board, 20″ X 60″ © Osamu James Nakagawa

Nakagawa’s Banta series is a visually and aesthetically impressive body of work; he captures a moment in time that is unknown to many, and provides space to begin the process of reclaiming Okinawan history.

For more information on the Banta series, please check out Nakagawa’s website.

After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age
September 25, 2012—May 27, 2013
Featuring Osamu James Nakagawa, Kelli Connell, Nancy Davenport, Craig Kalpakjian, Beate Gütschow, Matthew Jensen, Maria Marshall, and others.


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