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Yokosuka Story #98, 1976-77. Photos: IshiuchiMiyako/Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum

The J. Paul Getty Museum showcases the work of celebrated Japanese photographer Ishiuchi Miyako in a new exhibition.

By Alissa Hiraga, Contributor

Elements of violation, loss and redemption are at play in Ishiuchi Miyako’s grainy black-and-white photographs. If these photographs eerily manage to stir a sense of familiarity within us, perhaps it’s because these elements are not unlike what we attempt to confront and reconcile in our own lives.

These works introduce us to a fascinating artist, and now, the general public will get an inside look into her work in a new exhibit entitled “Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows” at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, in Los Angeles. The exhibit, which is set to run from Oct. 6-Feb. 21, 2016, will feature more than 120 photographs that represent the evolution of the artist’s career, from her landmark series “Yokosuka Story” (1976-77) that established her as a photographer to her current project “(ひろしま) Hiroshima” (2007-present) in which she presents images of garments and objects that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

“About eight years ago, the Getty Museum began a concerted effort to expand our East Asian photography holdings and since that time work by Japanese photographers has become an important part of the collection,” explained Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “As part of this effort, the museum acquired 37 photographs by Ishiuchi, many of them gifts of the artist, which constitute the largest holdings of her work outside Japan.”

Added Potts, “Particularly poignant during this 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and shown for the first time in an American institution, is Ishiuchi’s ‘(ひろしま) Hiroshima,’ a delicate and profound series of images depicting objects affected by the atomic blast.”

Ishiuchi’s captivating career began fortuitously, when she received photographic equipment as a gift in 1975. Born as Fujikura Yōko (Ishiuchi adopted her mother’s maiden name) in 1947 postwar Japan, she would emerge from the male-dominated photography world and create powerful works from the spirit of the female perspective.

“I feel that the exhibition of my personal photographs in America is a very meaningful event. Thanks to this, I have been able to experience the inevitable connection between the times I have lived through and the history of war in Japan,” said Ishiuchi. “I do not wish for viewers to get any particular message from my photographs. There are no captions, and I am happy if viewers think of my works in their own individual words, linger before my photographs, look at them carefully and feel something.”

Ishiuchi added, “The title “Hiroshima” (“ひろしま”) is written in the Hiragana script, giving it a particularly feminine feel, so please remember these four Japanese characters.”

Amanda Maddox, assistant curator in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, curated the exhibition. Maddox points to Ishiuchi’s intent to use photography as a vehicle to transform memories or themes with negative connotations of war, death, scars, fear into positive, even beautiful images.

“Recognition that this approach informs her choice of subject and the emotional contents of her photographs makes the work that much more powerful,” said Maddox.

Ishiuchi’s first major series, “Yokosuka Story,” focuses on the “effect of America in Japan, Japan in America.” The disturbing byproduct and symbol of war and occupation is an American naval base in Yokosuka.

The postwar experience is a dominant theme in Ishiuchi’s works.

“I began taking photographs out of a desire to measure my own footsteps, to turn my memories into photos,” said Ishiuchi. “I started with landscapes of Yokosuka, the city where I grew up. I printed images of the painful experiences of my youth, from ages 6-19, in photographs. These became my first three works, ‘Yokosuka Story,’ ‘Apartment’ and ‘[Endless] City Nights.’ As part of the first generation of baby boomers born after the war, my personal history is, of course, intertwined with the history of war in Japan.”

The photographer’s “On the Body” series focuses on the human body undergoing the natural aging process and the scars caused by injury and trauma. In describing how the series was born, Ishiuchi discovered an important link to her previous work.

“When I turned 40, I began to feel that my hands and feet bore the traces of 40 years of time, and beginning with “1•9•4•7,” my interest turned to the body,” Ishiuchi said. “‘Scars’ is a series about physical scars. Scars are proof that one is alive, giving form to the past and embodying memory. . . . While photographing ‘Scars,’ I realized that my debut work, ‘Yokosuka Story,’ was about the scars of the city and the scars of history because this city is inextricably linked with war. Then, ‘Yokosuka’ developed into ‘Hiroshima.’ All these works are on the same line of development.”

The series also portrays the rekindling of a mother and daughter relationship.

“Ishiuchi photographed her camera-shy mother for three separate series, ‘Body and Air,’ ‘Scars’ and ‘Mother’s,’ all of which will be featured in the exhibition,” observed Maddox. “Through these various projects, Ishiuchi found that photography allowed her to forge a stronger relationship with her mother, someone whom she never felt particularly close to. Their collaboration in photographs, revealed in works produced before and after her mother’s death, enabled Ishiuchi to understand her mother’s complexities in greater depth.”

Ishiuchi’s current project “(ひろしま) Hiroshima,” shown for the first time in an American institution, features images of garments and objects remaining after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. A watch, blouse, gloves — we’ve all possessed and treasured such things. Images of these objects, broken and no longer in possession by their owners, won’t soon leave the mind or heart. One such image is that of the tattered blouse worn by a mother who was holding her one-month-old daughter when the atomic bomb was dropped. Seventy-years later, these objects endure to remind us that we are not far from one another.

Ishiuchi’s works are also a visual journal, where we are privy to witnessing a journey unfold and where dark corners and shadows are defeated by refusing to look at life solely through a rearview mirror. She is able to share what is deeply personal without manipulation. We are able to make the journey our own.

Exhibition Information

“Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows” is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, from Oct. 6, 2015, to February 21, 2016.
An English-language, fully illustrated scholarly catalog complements the exhibition and contains essays by Maddox, poet Itō Hiromi and Miryam Sas, professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The catalog also contains a comprehensive chronology of Ishiuchi’s life and career.

A conversation between Ishiuchi and Christopher Phillips, curator at the International Center of Photography in New York, will take place on Oct. 7, 2015, at the Getty Center.

The Center for Photographs is concurrently presenting “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography,” which features the works of five contemporary women.

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