Miyako Ishiuchi illuminates the human presence in material possessions of the past

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Presenting her first exhibition in Scotland, the influential photographer reflects on her craft, and her experience as a woman in the “boys’ club” of Japanese post-war photography

“It wasn’t about what I was taking photos of, but how,” says Miyako Ishiuchi. Dressed in a deep plum kimono embroidered with delicate silver flowers, Ishiuchi is speaking ahead of the opening night of her first show in Scotland, at Stills in Edinburgh. The 75-year-old artist discovered the photographic medium at 27, but it wasn’t through cameras or photographs. She was studying textiles, and found that the chemical used to stop the dying process could also be used as a photographic fixer. “I realised that photography was the same as textiles, except you are dyeing paper,” she says. “I loved the darkroom, but you can’t go to the darkroom without taking photos, so I decided to make Yokosuka Story.”

For over ten years, Ishiuchi documented the port city of Yokosuka, home to the largest American naval base in the Pacific. She captured the lingering presence of the US occupation in the signature ‘are, bure, boke’ (grainy, blurry, out of focus) style of post-war Japanese photography. Rape and other violent crimes were widespread in naval ports like Yokosuka, and, as a young woman, Ishiuchi witnessed the violence firsthand. “The scars of adolescence that I sustained there had a big effect on me… You could say that Yokosuka was the starting point for my photography,” she said in an interview with Ocula Magazine in 2021.

Ishiuchi’s current exhibition at Stills – which runs until 08 October 2022 – presents three more recent series: Mother’s (2000-05), Hiroshima (2008-ongoing), and Frida (2012). These works marked a departure in Ishiuchi’s practice, from grainy black-and-white documentary shots to still-life photographs that capture the human presence in material possessions of the past. 

Hiroshima #104 ©︎ Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy of The Third Gallery Aya
Hiroshima #108 ©︎Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy of The Third Gallery Aya
Frida Love and Pain #51 ©︎ Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy of The Third Gallery Aya

This exhibition is a significant moment for Ishiuchi because the three series have never been shown together. They are visually congruent, but were made years apart in different places and under distinct circumstances. In 2000, Ishiuchi began photographing her late mother’s possessions to come to terms with their tricky relationship. The work received widespread praise, and Ishiuchi was selected to represent Japan in the 2005 Venice Biennale. 

This led to a commission from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Every year since 2008, Ishiuchi has travelled to Hiroshima to photograph objects that belonged to victims of the atomic bomb in 1945. Then, in 2012 the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico invited Ishiuchi to photograph Kahlo’s belongings. “My mother called Hiroshima from Venice, and then Hiroshima called Mexico from Japan,” Ishiuchi muses. And now, all three are exhibited together for the first time in Scotland. 

The work is presented in one long room, partitioned into three distinct sections. This scenography allows viewers to interpret the intersections and distinctions between the series. Ishiuchi hung the work intuitively and by eye – “I never measure up,” she says – resulting in a flow of images that resembles a tide of human emotion.

Mother’s #65 ©︎ Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy of The Third Gallery Aya

Although Ishiuchi has received numerous international accolades, including the 2014 Hasselblad Foundation Award, the artist is one of the lesser-known figures of Japanese post-war photography in the West. She belongs to a generation of practitioners, which she describes as a “boys’ club”. These artists – most famously Shomei Tomatsu, Daidō Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Masahisa Fukase – were Ishiuchi’s peers. She would join them for weekly drinks in the backstreet bars of Shinjuku’s Golden Gai – a district that was once an iconic haunt for artists, musicians and filmmakers. “I got my share of sexual harassment, of course. They were old-school guys, after all,” said Ishiuchi in an interview with Aperture in 2021. “It sounds idiotic saying it like that now, but that’s how it was.”

When asked whether she experienced discrimination as a woman photographer, Ishiuchi laughs. “Of course I did, but I never engaged with it,” she says, recalling a time where she was accused of sleeping with a male editor. Ishiuchi speaks about these experiences lightheartedly, but takes on a more serious tone when discussing the subject of feminism in Japan. The country is advanced in many ways, yet, shockingly, the World Economic Forum’s gender gap report ranks it 120th out of the 153 countries featured. 

“Of course I am a feminist,” she declares. “Feminism is the foundation of everything.” But as a young photographer, Ishiuchi didn’t have female mentors or artists to aspire to. This wasn’t because the women didn’t exist, she says. It was because their work hadn’t been documented like their male counterparts. “There are so many women artists, in Japan and I’m sure in the UK as well, who have not received the deserved recognition for their work,” says Ishiuchi, citing the work of photographers like Toshiko Okanoue and Eiko Yamazawa.  As her show opens, this sentiment feels particularly relevant – the exhibition celebrates Ishiuchi’s legacy and contribution to photography, inspiring generations of photographers to come.

Ishiuchi Miyako is exhibiting Mothers, Hiroshima and Frida at Stills in Edinburgh until 08 October 2022. 

Marigold Warner

Online Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.