“Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows” is a must-see photographic exhibition at The Getty Center in Brentwood. The accompanying show “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography” is equally intriguing and flows thematically from this master photographer’s collection of works.
I wonder whether photography in Japan is dominated by women: in an unusually fortunate occurrence, four of the artists, including Miyako herself and three women of the younger generation, were present to share commentary about their work at Monday’s press preview. The overarching theme of all these works is time, memory, tradition, the personal and the political.
Born in the aftermath of World War II, Ishiuchi Miyako has been taking photographs for more than 40 years of places she’s lived, houses of prostitution, the process of aging, body scars, the artifacts left behind from the bombing of Hiroshima, and shadows of the American presence in her country. Her method is transformative: she takes painful negative memories and turns them into positive artful images, just as the process of photography itself turns a negative into a positive.
All of the works, including those of the younger generation, are presented in series, rather than individual images, which allows us to see the richness of work, their process and their progression.
Miyako’s first series begins in the town where she lived from 1953 to 1966, Yokosuka, where an American naval base was located and which she came to fear and hate. According to Amanda Maddox, the assistant curator of photography at the Getty, she “attempted to transfer her emotions and dark memories into her prints.” She especially loved working in the dark room where she could print her black and white images in “heavy grain and deep black tones, allowing her to inject her feelings into the work.”
“Yokosuka Story” and “Yokosuka Again” are two distinct series started in 1970, expanded in 1980 and intermittently continued through 1990. “Apartment,” a series that recollects the cramped one bedroom apartment where her family lived, was shot in a derelict Tokyo building, and while criticized by other photographers, it was published as a book and ultimately won one of Japan’s most prestigious photography awards.
When Miyako turned 40 she began contemplating leaving photography behind. Through her translator she told the crowd surrounding her at the Getty that she wondered “where those 40 years went.” She began exploring “the invisibility of time made visible,” by focusing on friends born the same year she was (1947).
Extreme close-up and intimate images of wrinkles, hand, feet, toenails tell the story of “bodies embraced by time.”
It also inspired her next series focusing on scars, representing personal history, trauma and memory. And that, in turn, led her to the series selected to represent Japan at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 2005, “Mother’s.” Her mother was dying and she photographed her body. But after she died, Miyako went through her personal possessions and began taking photographs of her dentures, her lipstick, her negligees, her old shoes, her girdles and more, instilling them with both life and beauty.
And that, in turn, led to what may be the most striking work in this exhibition, “Hiroshima.” Rather than focus on the destruction, the kinds of images we are accustomed to when talking about this dark history, she chose once again a personal way of interpreting this world-changing event.
She selected items of clothing and objects that survived the bomb blast and are housed in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. In some cases she photographed them on a light box, others in natural light, and what we see are images that seem to still live and breathe and are timeless.
The Younger Generation
The most immediately obvious influence of Miyako on the “Younger Generation” exhibition is another series of clothing photographed as standalone objects. Onodera Yuki’s “Portrait of Second-hand Clothes” comes out of her disenchantment with the fashion industry, and features clothing from an art installation by Christian Boltanski, who created piles of clothing and invited viewers to take something from the pile home with them.
Shiga Lieko examines local communities by immersing herself in their culture and history. She became the official photographer of local festivals in the town of Kitakama, a place steeped in folklore. The post-apocalyptic images here represent life following destruction by both earthquake and tsunami, which forced her to flee her own home. Look for her dramatic photo of a couple holding an immense pine root.
But the most fun is Sawada Tomoko, whom I’ll dub as a cross between Lady Gaga and Cindy Sherman.
Dressed in the brightest, frilliest pink dress imaginable with short white boots and a bejeweled phone from which she read her notes, Tomoko dresses and is fully made up in the various kinds of outfits worn for “Omiai”, part of the arranged marriage tradition where women sit for formal portraits in outfits that represent an aspect of their character. In these 30 self-images, shot in the same studio in established poses, she wears everything from kimonos to dress suits and fancy hats. Each is uniquely framed, and in keeping with tradition she looks only to her right, toward the future. Lucky for us, the Getty has acquired this series.
Don’t miss this exhibition. A documentary about Miyako’s Hiroshima series, “Things Left Behind” by filmmaker Linda Hoaglund screens this Saturday. Details about this and other related events are at available at www.getty.edu.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various publications.