Photographing Shadows in Postwar Japan

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Photographer Ishiuchi Miyako traces the haunting history of her homeland in a poignant and politically-charged new retrospective

Who? Born in Kiryū, Japan, in the aftermath of World War II, Ishiuchi Miyako is a Japanese photographer whose celebrated work includes the monumental series Yokosuka Story (1976-77). Miyako grew up in Yokosuka, a postwar city that was newly occupied by a US naval base – contributing to both her distaste for the place, and her love of pop music and denim.

In the late 1960s she moved to Tokyo to study textile design at Tama Art University, dropping out before graduating to focus on photography. Later that year she exhibited her first photographs under her mother’s maiden name, Ishiuchi Miyako, which she adopted as her own. In the 1970s she returned to Yokosuka to confront her fears of the city she grew up in, photographing the familiar and the unknown. Using the money her father had saved for her wedding, she produced the prints and publication Yokosuka Story, named after a Japanese pop song. Her career divides into three interconnected parts, focusing on her postwar experience of Japan, and the effects of American occupancy on her native country, both personal and political.

What? Now showing in Los Angeles at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California is a major exhibition celebrating Ishiuchi Miyako’s prolific career. On view until February 21 2016, Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows features over 120 photographs following the evolution of her career. This includes the series Mother’s, where she intimately catalogues objects once owned by her mother, as well as photographs of her mother’s body made soon before her death in 2000.

A powerful, large-scale series of prints completes her series Scars. Each image informs the viewer of the year the wound was inflicted, as well as the often-disturbing cause. The scars, much like photographs, are evidence of life and what has happened in the past, but are at the same time a human memory – she continues this theme in her current project Hiroshima (2007-present) presenting images of garments and objects that survived the atomic bombing. 

Why? Influenced by her studies in textile production, Miyako finds the physical practice of the darkroom to be more conceptual and emotional than the action of taking pictures – a step which simply facilitates the dark room process. Miyako is interested in how one experiences the world while printing photographs, creating a dialogue with it. “With Yokosuka Story, and ultimately the other series she produced at the beginning of her career, Ishiuchi attempted to transfer her emotions and dark memories into the prints through physical means,” explains Amanda Maddox, curator of the exhibition. “By carefully controlling how she processed film, and by intentionally printing the photographs with heavy grain and deep black tones, she injected her feelings into the work.”

Ishiuchi Miyako details traces of time left behind by individuals, photographing previously worn garments or abandoned buildings that induce memories of people that inhabited them, evoking ideas of transience and change. She finds beauty in traces of wounds, and through grieving for her mother, uses her work to come to terms with life and death. With Scars she reminds us that time is invisible, using the human body to visualise time as it ages. These tangible reminders of past illnesses or accidents are likened to old photographs and transformed into marks of strength.

Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows runs until February 21, 2016 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, USA.

Ishiuchi Miyako is represented by the Michael Hoppen Gallery