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Waikiki '73

A book of photographs in black and white shows a district's colorful characters

By Steven Mark

LAST UPDATED: 1:14 a.m. HST, Aug 19, 2012

In 1973, Eric Yanagi was a 22-year-old commercial photographer struggling to get his career started. It was also a time of change for Waikiki, when accelerated commercial and high-rise development began its final encroachment on the few remaining modest, single-family homes in the neighborhood.

So Yanagi, with time on his hands and change happening before his eyes, did what any photographer would do: He started taking photographs.

"At the time, I knew it would be important eventually," said Yanagi.

Even though he wasn't sure the significance of the work would be recognized until decades later or even after his death, "I knew it would be an important thing to do."


If you can identify anyone in these photos, email

PICS: Waikiki '73, Part 1

PICS: Waikiki '73, Part 2

PICS: Waikiki '73, Part 3

Yanagi, now 60, went on to establish his photography business, taking pictures of buildings, business people and products. He submitted his Waikiki portfolio to various publishers, whose interest ranged from "mild" to "disinterested."

Now Yanagi has self-published his book, which he titled "Waikiki 73." In stark black-and-white images, the book captures the life and times of the people and a place in transition.

Star-Advertiser photo editor George F. Lee said Yanagi's photos capture Waikiki in a time of transition when "streams of visitors and transients from the mainland, hippies, military personnel and the occasional oddball looking for a place to land would be succeeded by a newer breed of visitor attracted by the tourist mecca we would come to know in the 1980s and beyond."

Lee said Yanagi's imagery of "that fleeting time branches out to a much larger picture."

Yanagi considers the book to be an unfinished project, and is seeking help in completing his venture. Most of the people in his photographs are unidentified, so he's appealing to the community for help in matching names with faces, as well as some of his subjects' personal stories.

"Some of these photographs are of local people that I didn't document in the sense of writing down their names," he said.

Pointing to a photograph of some children, he added: "Some of these kids probably still live here. They're 40, 50 years old now. It would be great to find out who they are, if they could remember anything from their time in Hawaii."

Yanagi believes some of the people in the photos should be easy to identify, such as the elderly man playing the mandolin in the cover photo. "This guy was a well-known local figure," Yanagi said. "Every day he was out there on the street playing his mandolin. Someone must know his name, what he did, what his life was like."

Some people in his photographs are already well known: actor Jack Lord, in his dapper "Hawaii Five-0" suit and tie, interacting with a crowd; entertainer Al Harrington, getting ready for a Polynesian theater show; musician Nephi Hannemann (Mufi's brother). But most of his pictures are anonymous portraits, like a Waikiki adaptation of Grant Wood's "American Gothic" — kids hanging out on a front stoop, a family sitting on a couch. Relatively few show the famous beach.

Yanagi remembers taking one of the more popular images ­— an African-American man carrying a blond toddler in a baby carrier on his back. He happened on the pair in a parking lot and snapped the photo immediately. "Usually you try to engage the guy in some kind of conversation to maybe get a different shot," he said, "but this time the guy just turned and looked right through me and kept on going."

Other images show the architectural transformation of Waikiki: single-wall-construction, island-style homes juxtaposed against small apartment buildings and high-rise condos.

Yanagi remembers that era as a time of "massive bulldozing," when American and Japa­nese investment fueled the transformation of Waikiki. He had seen the work of photographers documenting urban life in cities such as New York and Paris and decided to do the same in Waikiki, roaming from the Ala Wai Canal to Diamond Head taking pictures.

"It was something I'd never done before," he said. "I was used to working in the studio or doing commercial jobs where you go to a hotel and photograph setups and arrange things. This was, literally, you don't know what's around the corner. You just go with the flow.

"I'd literally pound on strangers' doors up and down the little side streets near the Ala Wai Canal and say, ‘Can I come in and photograph you in your living room or your bedroom? And people would say, ‘Come on in.'"

He plans to update the book with any new information that surfaces and send copies to various national libraries and archival institutions.

"These people deserve to be remembered," he said.

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