Captured Audience

May 1, 2013 | By Karyl Reynolds

Selections from Framing Paradise: Photography and Waikiki

The place called Waikiki by ancient Hawaiians is known throughout the contemporary world as a vacation escape promising beaches and bars, shopping and sunsets. In the Hawaiian language, Waikiki is the “place of the spouting waters,” and it once flourished as an area on the island of O‘ahu known for its pristinely accessible aquaculture and surf. Early Hawaiians settled here and built communities sustained by the natural resources available to them. But they would find their Waikiki changing quickly once the beauty and abundance of the area was discovered by outsiders. Waikiki was once esteemed for the mana it possessed. But years went by, and Waikiki became less the land of the native people of Hawai‘i and more the place for visitors. Today, the waterways and wetlands of Waikiki have been replaced by hotels and stores. The beach remains, as does Diamond Head in the backdrop. But tourism would eventually move to the forefront, and Waikiki would be forever changed.

ERIC YANAGI: In 1959, the Hawaiian Islands would become the 50th of the United States. Moving forward, the 1970s was a time of change throughout the U.S., and Hawai‘i was no exception. Development in Honolulu, specifically Waikiki, was at an all-time high, and residents of Waikiki were quickly being displaced by the expanding hotels. Local artist Eric Yanagi recognized the importance of recording the changing times through his photographs of people and places in Waikiki. He was deliberately aware that his photographs would have historical significance. In 1973, at the age of 21, Yanagi walked through Waikiki and directly connected with subjects for the photographs in his collection.

DAIDO MORIYAMA: A little over thirty years later, world-renowned photographer Daido Moriyama, largely appreciated for the way his photographs make such bold social and political statements, would visit the Hawaiian Islands and record what he saw as significant and defining for Honolulu. He used his seemingly informal approach of “snap photography” to capture the essence of the people and places of Waikiki. The distance he kept from his subjects allows the viewer to peer into a world they otherwise might never see.

Daido Moriyama speaks of wanting to capture the essence of a place. When asked what he felt the essence of Waikiki was, he stated with conviction, “The quintessential Waikiki image is Diamond Head.” Native Hawaiians called this crater Le‘ahi; and they built a heiau there for spiritual practice. Perhaps it is the mana of this Waikiki motif that Moriyama speaks of when recognizing its visual draw for people from all around the world. Many of his photographs, indeed, feature Diamond Head, sometimes the focus… sometimes obscured.

O ka makapo wale no ka mea hapapa i ka puli. (Only the blind grope in darkness.)

This ‘olelo no‘eau, or Hawaiian proverb, is said to “one who gropes around instead of going directly to the object he is seeking.” The directness of both Daido Moriyama and Eric Yanagi is clear in the visionary artistry of their work and in how each man sought out subjects for his Waikiki photographs. Although both artists are distinct in approach to their respective subject matter, both utilize the contrast of darkness and light as they define each subject within a photograph and capture each subject’s shadowy essence.