Photo of Ishiuchi Miyako by Iris Schneider.
For those who miss the depth and grit of a beautifully printed black and white image, the photography of Ishiuchi Miyako, whose work is on view at the Getty through February 2016, may be just what you are yearning for. Ishiuchi, who has been exploring her life through photography for 40 years, is a fearless photographer but she says she only took photographs so she could get into the darkroom and print them. I understand the pleasure of the hours of isolation that darkroom printing provides. She taught herself to print, using rolls of photo paper that could make large prints. "The reason I love roll prints is that it is the same as dying fabric," she said, likening it to printing rolls of silk that harken back to her early training in textiles. She is also a pioneer as a female photographer in a country where men have traditionally taken the lead in the photography world, and as such she has inspired the five younger Japanese women whose work is also on exhibit concurrently at the Getty. What unites them is their exploration of family and self, the personal that becomes political, and the thought that has gone into their photographic journeys. Otsuka Chino, one of the younger generation photographers, said her personal exploration was like "being a tourist of your own life."
For Ishiuchi, she began her life as a visual artist when she returned in the 70's to her hometown of Yokosuka, the home of her family's tiny apartment and a US airbase. She would return twice to continue her work there, eventually using the money her father had put aside for her wedding to finance the printing of her work. She began to document her life in her cramped family apartment and her feelings about America and the American military presence in her town. "There are many things I would rather forget," she said in addressing the press before the show, "Postwar Shadows," opened at the Getty. "I only explore negative memories so in the process of forming them into photographs, they turn into something positive." Her prints of Yokosuka are brooding, textured images that grab your attention. She turned an unflinching eye to her surroundings and her images reflect the love/hate relationship she had with the American military presence. While it introduced her to many cultural touchstones, like American music and fashion, she is understandably ambivalent about the US military's effect on her hometown and its intrusion into Japanese culture. She continued documenting Yokosuka and her feelings toward it until 1990.
The show continues for several rooms, each exploring a different facet of Ishiuchi's very personal work. As she turned 40, she became interested in the ravages of time. She explains that she never expected to live until she turned 40 and once she did she became interested in what happens to a body after 40 years of exposure to time. "I became interested in the body as a repository of the invisible: time, air, space. The body is passive, it can't speak back. I decided to photograph how 40 years of time etched into women's bodies. It caused a stir in Japan...if you are a woman, you are not supposed to be old, scarred, withered, to show the passage of time. But that is life...I was interested and compelled by the body embraced by time. I began to realize that with photography you can capture the invisible."
Her images are large and indeed show the ravages of time in scars, wrinkles, spots. This exploration led her to photograph her mother's scarred body as she reached old age. She was invited to use polaroids and began a different visual exploration with color photography. Her mother passed away before she could fully explore the project. They had never gotten along in her mother's lifetime. But after she passed away Ishiuchi began looking at and talking to the clothing she had left behind. "I opened her drawers and found her undergarments and treated them as a kind of skin. This was the beginning of capturing images of things left behind."
In the last phase of the exhibit, Ishiuchi exhibits work done in Hiroshima from 2007, when she was invited by the government of Japan to do a photography project there. At first she felt that so many photographers had gone to Hiroshima "there would be nothing left for me." But she began to look at objects of clothing that remained and found them to be "imbued with life" rather than the death we usually think of when we think of Hiroshima. For me, her photographs of these garments, and those of her mother, are the most moving work in the show. "The garments were still colorful and fashionable. Seeing the clothes made me think if I had been 17, these were the kinds of things I would have worn myself...I had to approach it as a social issue and have been accused of beautifying and glorifying tragedy but I say these things were much more beautiful before the bombing." People are still donating cherished objects and the project continues as she returns every two years. She has captured the spirit left in these garments by their owners in a way that haunts you long after you've left the gallery.
From the Hiroshima series. Courtesy of and © Ishiuchi Miyako.
Little girl in street: Yokosuka Story #998. Collection of Yokohama Museum of Art © Ishiuchi Miyako