This Week In Photography Books: Osamu James Nakagawa

by Jonathan Blaustein

I could never live in Portland. (No offense.)

Setting aside my distaste for humorless hipsters, it would never happen: there’s just not enough sun. I don’t care if they have the best coffee in the world, and a beautiful girl in chunky glasses fitted me with an IV drip that dosed me with caffeine, constantly, day in and day out.

It just wouldn’t work.

Why? Because I’m addicted to sunshine. Without a near-daily fix of Vitamin D, I become as surly and listless as a drunk walrus. Like today, for instance.

We get 330 days of sunshine a year here in Northern New Mexico, but come April, the high clouds move in and the wind whips more fiercely than Harrison Ford practicing for Indiana Jones Part 5. (Note to Mr. Ford: ditch the silly earring, and we might take you seriously again.) As I write this, it’s actually snowing outside, and my bones are colder than Han Solo’s blood when he shoots Greedo in the Star Wars bar scene.

As such, I would not have fared well in the old days. I mean the very, very old days, when humans lived in caves, taking protection wherever they could find it. Bears, saber-toothed tigers, homicidal assholes from other tribes, all could cause trouble, if you weren’t careful. So the dark became associated with safety. Dank air was precious, as it represented home.

Occasionally, fast forwarding millennia, there comes a time when people retreat back to those old ways. Deep within natural fissures in the Earth, one can hide for a long while, provided food and water are stockpiled, or, at least, available. (Fresh water in underground streams, and plenty of barbecued rats. Deeee-licious.)

Such a situation occurred during World War II, on the island of Okinawa, in Japan. We’ve seen photos of the place in this very column, as I reviewed a book by Daido Moriyama a couple of years ago. (Yes, that was the book where I mistakenly called him a woman. I only bring it up so you don’t have to.)

Then, we saw things above ground, and witnessed the remnants of American occupation. Burger joints, in particular. (As cows undoubtedly taste better than rodents, when cooked carefully above an open flame.)

Today, though, we’ll burrow beneath the island cliffs, and enter a world not meant to be seen by cameras, which so dearly love the light. Osamu James Nakagawa is our guide, and his book, “Gama Caves,” published by Akaaka, is our opportunity.

I didn’t intend to go on a run of Pacific Rim photo books, but there you have it. Like I said last week, show me something I’ve never seen before, and I’m likely to pontificate here and now.

The caves were utilized during the War, and many civilians called the Gama home, along with military types. I can’t imagine anyone had any fun down there, and according to the text, Americans used all sorts of killing techniques to either root the people out, or destroy them where they were. Flame throwers, bombs, all sorts of nasty endings for the people who fled to the seeming safety of stalactites and mites. (Never could keep those two words straight.)

These pictures are haunting and beautiful and horrific and awesome. My favorite kind of art, the type that hits all notes together. Ironically, they were on the wall in Houston when I visited FotoFest in 2012, but I didn’t know they were there, as I was holed up in the metaphorical cave known as a portfolio review.

I’m fairly certain you’ll like these pictures, though my snapshots don’t do the subtlety justice. The writing within, in Japanese and English, is uniformly excellent. There’s a poem with the obligatory reference to pubic hair, and a few essays, including one by the legendary MFA,H curator Anne Wilkes Tucker. I believe the artist received a Guggenheim fellowship to support the project, so the high-art-street-cred will likely back up the value of your purchase, should you choose to buy the book.

To continue with all the cinematic references, I heard they’re re-making Mad Max with a less racist, homophobic, Anti-Semitic protagonist. That’s the big fear we all have, right? (Especially when you have kids.) That we’re ruining the world, and our descendants will live in a post-apocalyptic nightmare, where many will be forced underground again.

I’m guessing the artist is smart enough to know that metaphor will pop up in your mind, as it has in mine. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. OK?

Bottom Line: Creepy photos inside Okinawan caves

To Purchase “Gama Caves” Visit Photo-Eye














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