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Matinee: 'Miyako Ishiuchi: Photography Makes History' Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

5 September 2020

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 269th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Miyako Ishiuchi: Photography Makes History.

Whether you call her Miyako Ishiuchi (as SFMOMA did for the SFMOMA exhibit in which she appears prominently) or Ishiuchi Miyako (Miyako is her first name), she is one of the more important post-war Japanese photographers. And she does all the talking in this 29-minute discussion of her life and work.

She talks about trying to pick a profession in her youth, convinced by her mother's example that women can hold a job. She tried to become a designer in art school and a weaver after that but neither suited her.

She took up photography without ever studying it and was praised in her first show, a group show, by one of the country's leading photographers. She had no idea who he was.

She had really fallen in love not so much with taking pictures as the sanctuary of the darkroom where, cut off from the world, she could go anywhere.

Some of her first photos were of Yokosuka, then the home of the largest American naval base in Japan, published as Yokosuka Story. She had lived there before returning to photograph it. But she says she has no pleasant memories, recalling she was "deeply wounded" by it. As an outsider she had a different perspective on life there and the acceptance of the military base.

'I wanted to be someone who makes history.'

Her first three series, she says, were all about her own personal problems. Her feelings came to the surface with these photos.

Apartment was about four people with no money living in one room. It recalled how her family had lived before they moved to Yokosuka, giving her a chance to revisit her youth. She had returned alone with her camera.

Endless Night followed soon after. And then she was done, she says. She had put all her feelings into photographs. There were no more photos to take. And wondering what to do next, she turned 40.

But becoming older turned out to be precisely what she wanted to photograph next. Photograph the time she had accumulated in her body. But not just herself. Fifty other women her age, too. She photographed the faces, hands and feet of these women, throwing out the faces because "they didn't fit."

She thought no one would be interested in "the hands and faces of old women," but 1-9-4-7 was a great success.

That work sparked an interest in scars, which she found very impressive. She asked each person how they got their scars and the stories came flooding out. Scars are like photographs, she observes, each with a story behind it.

One of the scars she photographed was her mother's burn mark just 10 months before she died. It became the Mother's series along with all the things her mother left behind from underwear to lipstick.

In fact, it was her mother's red lipstick that launched her into color photography. It had to be red, she said, so she had to shoot color.

The series tries to capture the moment all the things the deceased were fond of suddenly becoming garbage to be discarded. It's sad, she says. Dentures with no mouth, lipstick with no lips any more.

And then came her series on Hiroshima, which she was reluctant to do. She went there for the first time with the editor who had proposed the idea of photographing the clothing of victims of the atomic bombing. The colors of the clothes surprised her. She had only seen black-and-white photos of Hiroshima.

She has no message, she says, she is just presenting objects for people to think about. There are no captions. "Everybody sees things in different ways," she notes.

She knows nothing about the different theories about the meaning of photography, she says. "I just thought that photos would make history. I wanted to be someone who makes history."

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