"Visit us in San Francisco": Yoshi Yubai Interviewed by V. Vale

Photo of V. Vale, Jello Biafra, and Al Jorgensen by Yoshi Yubai.

Photo of V. Vale, Jello Biafra, and Al Jorgensen by Yoshi Yubai.


The photographer Yoshi Yubai’s show SAN FRANCISCO is up in the Adobe gallery space until February 27th. Below, the Japanese photographer speaks with V. Vale about the origin of their friendship, Yoshi’s start as a photographer, and more.

V. Vale: How did you meet V.Vale?

Yoshi Yubai: I discovered RE/Search in 1994 when I was 13-years-old. I had gotten BRUTUS Magazine Vol.328 that had an article about RE/Search. The article also introduced me to some weird collectors with strong connections to RE/Search, like Mickey McGowan (curator of Unknown Museum),and Mike Wilkins (one of the authors of Roadside America).

In the picture of V.Vale (RE/Search founder) at the RE/Search office, he was wearing all black and surrounded by mysterious-looking records. It was so interesting for me. I had already learned some Rock history by then, and knew a few hundred famous recordings, but I didn't know any of the records he owned. This made me curious. And the covers of the RE/Search issues were so surrealistic and beautiful. My favorite cover was the J.G.Ballard issue. The infrared photography by Ana Barrado and the Bauhaus-looking graphic design with 80's taste was just gorgeous.

In summer of 1995, I had a chance to visit United States and went to bookstores to look for RE/Search issues. At Borders and Barnes & Noble, neither staff knew anything about RE/Search.

In winter of 1995, I discovered Punk and completely changed my musical taste. I totally forgot about RE/Search. But in 1998 when I turned 18, I took another look at that BRUTUS magazine. There I saw Jello Biafra in the article on RE/Search. I started to learn the history of counterculture. I got into the Beat Generation and the Psychedelic movement. After I got tired of Punk, I started to listen to Kraut Rock, Industrial and some other non-mainstream music. I realized RE/Search had all the information I wanted to know about. I started to look for a bookstore where I could get them again. 

Finally, I found one bookstore in Tokyo that had RE/Search, Art Bird Books. I got every RE/Search issue available. I had been inspired by almost all of them, and then I got to Incredibly Strange Music Vol.2. I couldn't read English very well, but I carefully checked the artwork and looked at the names of the artists. And there was a catalog on the last few pages offering all of the RE/Search issues and other related books. This catalog introduced me to photography books such as Charles Gatewood's "SIDETRIPPING" and Ken Werner's "HALLOWEEN". These were both available at Art Bird Books, too. 

Also, I discovered Ana Barrado's photography book, which was published by a Japanese publisher! That was pretty funny. I knew all the RE/Search photographers before knowing about Robert Frank or Diane Arbus. 

In 2001, I mail ordered RE/Search for the first 3-tabloid issues and some other rare stuff. In the package, Vale included a letter to me. It said, "Visit us in San Francisco".

And I did. I visited them in 2002.

VV: How did you move to San Francisco?

Photo by Yoshi Yubai.

Photo by Yoshi Yubai.

YY: Ever since visiting RE/Search, I really wanted to move to San Francisco. I applied to the cheapest English school in the city, and Vale and his wife Marian Wallace invited me to be a RE/Search intern. I lived with them and my room was Vale's library—full of books. He owns over 10,000 books. If San Francisco had had a great earthquake then, I probably would have been crushed dead under books! 

VV: Why did you become a photographer?

YY: At first, I wasn't into photography at all. I had been interested in the history of painting, especially Van Eyck and Flemish Primitives.

But there were two reasons I started photography. When Ana Barrado visited RE/Search, she asked me to take her portrait and it was accidentally good. She told me that I have a natural talent for photography. That was one reason.

Then Vale and Marian took me to Los Angeles to see a Survival Research Laboratories' show in 2005. We stayed at the huge house of SPK leader Graeme Revell. Vale did an interview with Graeme, and he asked me to take Graeme's portrait. It came out really good and he used this picture in the RE/Search book, J.G. Ballard Conversations.

Also, Vale encouraged me to buy an Olympus Stylus Epic camera that he used to use at that time. I got it, and started to shoot—crazily at first, then began learning the history of photography. I looked at all the photography books in the RE/Search library and went to used bookstores, 365 days a year. 

Also that year, Vale pushed me to visit Ana Barrado. I took her workshop for 15 days, where she taught me how to approach photography. Ana was so energetic and probably the first genius artist I've met. I've gotten so much inspiration from her. She travels all over the world and I really wanted to be like that. I started to travel as much as I could.

I discovered that almost all the important American photographers lived in New York City. At that time, my best friend from Hiroshima lived in New York, so I had a place to stay. Also, two other interns from RE/Search, Leslie Hodgkins and Kiowa Hammons, had just moved there, and they introduced me to their old friend Mike Wilson at Red Krayola's show. He let me stay at his apartment free for 6 months. If I hadn’t met him, I couldn't have stayed in New York that long. I stayed in New York for a total of 9 months in 2006 & 2007. But I couldn't stand the winter and so escaped. 

Honestly, New York wasn't my city but I studied and worked on Street Photography there. My territory was between Penn Station and Times Square. During the summer I shot a lot. Almost every day afterwards, I used to go to the Strand Bookstore. I would look at all the photography and art books. I discovered Louis Faurer's works of "Times Square". He was one of the very first photographers who captured the dark side of humanity. Those works are still very important for me. 

Another memory in New York is visiting Les Krims who taught at Buffalo State College in western New York State. I didn't want to apply to the college, I just wanted to study photography with him. He asked the administration, but it didn't work out.

VV: Why did you photograph San Francisco?

YY: While shooting in NYC, I realized that there was no “scene” there that I was into. So even though I learned so much there, I felt it was time to go back to San Francisco to use what I had learned. I went back to San Francisco, and did Street Photography there between January and March 2008.  

My intention was to remake the 15th-century Flemish Paintings with Black & White photography. I had been thinking that the art of photography was weak compared to painting, so I needed strong subjects. I wanted to photograph the Tenderloin and the great-looking people in San Francisco. My work from San Francisco is an homage to Van Eyck and Flemish Primitives. 

Also, because of my love for San Francisco, of course.

VV: How did you happen to publish a photography book "SAN FRANCISCO" with Tiny Splendor?

YY: In 2008, after shooting in San Francisco for several months, I went back to Japan. There I learned darkroom technique from another mentor, Masatoshi Naito. I had several shows in Tokyo with the prints I made.

In 2015, I met Max Stadnik and Sanaa Khan (from Berkeley, CA) at the Tokyo Art Book Fair. They had brought a photography book they had published by John Roberts, "PUNKS & PORTRAITS SAN FRANCISCO 1979”. I thought it was a wonderful book, and that if I produced and published a photography book with them, I could make a perfect book. Also, they were friends of RE/Search. We suddenly became close friends. 

In 2017, I visited them and edited my photography portfolio with them. Then, I asked Vale to write an introduction for my book. Robert Frank's "THE AMERICANS" has a great introduction by Jack Kerouac. I needed Vale's introduction; without it, the book wouldn’t be complete. He wrote an amazing introduction that was probably better than my photos! (haha). Also, I asked my friend Yosuke Konishi who is a founder of the black metal label Nuclear War Now! Productions to write an afterword. Nuclear War Now! has an amazing website and my friend Jason Campbell writes reviews for their new releases. I asked Jason to contribute a review of my book for their website. I really wanted to share my work with people who love the same kind of music as I do, not photo book collectors. 

VV: How did you happen to have an exhibition at Adobe Books?

Max arranged my show. He chose Adobe Books because I have a connection with them. I used to hang out at Adobe Books when they were located on 16th Street. When Chris Cobb did an installation there called “There Is Nothing Wrong in This Whole Wide World”, I helped him carry bunches of books from shelf to shelf all over the store for his Installation Art Piece.

Anyway, Max and Sanaa always help me and I have to thank them, so much! And I have to thank to Mary Lawler (The Urge). She played amazing songs at the Adobe Back Room opening. People loved her music she played from her songbook. Also I thank Vale, Marian and Valentine from RE/Search. My works of San Francisco are full of love for the city and RE/Search!

(Special thanks to Marian Wallace)

Contact: yoshiyubai@gmail.com