LOS ANGELES — The story of Yokosuka, as told by photographer Ishiuchi Miyako, takes place in lonely, foreboding streets, where the miracle of Japan’s postwar economy seems to not have shaken off the grit and grime of history. If not for the occasional human figure, the naval city south of Tokyo could be mistaken for a ghost town of old signs and shuttered storefronts. The images suggest some kind of injury or trauma not redressed, a city forever cursed by the pall that lurks in every frame. Such scars and traces of history recur throughout Miyako’s 40-year career, now exhibited in a retrospective at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows celebrates one of the few women coming out of the are, bure, boke (grainy, blurry, and out-of-focus) style of photography, whose most recognizable practitioner may be Daidō Moriyama. Miyako’s early works from the late 1970s certainly resemble the gritty, shoot-from-the-hip style of the time. Like her contemporaries, she was also interested in portraying a darker, less flattering side of Japan that conflicted with national narratives of postwar prosperity.
As a child, Miyako grew up in the port town of Yokosuka, which she would revisit on multiple occasions to create two series of works, Yokosuka Story (1976–1977) and Yokosuka Again (1980–1990). The Getty exhibit presents the series side by side, and although the images span almost two decades, the city looks remarkably unchanged over time. With their dark and grainy focus, which makes even the sky look oppressive and claustrophobic, these photographs represent not an affectionate homecoming, but a haunting encounter with childhood fears.
Few images show explicit depictions of the US military, but the American naval base occupying the town seems to be the source of its shadowy entropy. The museum’s wall text reports that Miyako was “fueled by hatred and dark memories” of the military presence. Her interest in documenting the navy’s effect on the city also seems to be motivated by the need to confront the sense of danger that a militarized city poses against women.
In “Yokosuka Story #98” (1976–1977), a small child walks alone down a street, while the shadows cast by surrounding buildings threaten to overtake her. The dark tones of the girl’s coat and hair, along with her shadow, make her look like a ghostly apparition, perhaps a stand-in for Miyako’s childhood self. In “Yokosuka Story #121” (1976–1977), a woman guardedly holds her bag in a candid moment, while a teenager in “Yokosuka #61” (1976–1977) sits on a bench looking apprehensive, if not fearful. What few human subjects appear in these images all seem to suffer from some unease or threat, a shadow lurking from behind.
While the previous series makes allusions to danger, Yokosuka Again places Miyako’s camera at the epicenter, or root cause, of her childhood anxieties. She enters Honchō, a neighborhood popular with American soldiers and sex workers to this day, and documents the bars and clubs previously forbidden to her as a child. The images mark her willingness to face the trauma of her past as well as the US military base that keeps the city of Yokosuka frozen in time. Interior shots of the Enlisted Men’s Club, a run-down hangout of soldiers demolished in 1990, as well as the dark silhouette of a US naval ship in “Yokosuka Again #43” (1980–1990) appear as specters of the city’s wartime past and militarized present.
A sense of place remains central in Miyako’s photographs in the Apartment (1977–1978) and Endless Night (1978–1980) series. The former grew out of her images of residential buildings in Yokosuka, which she expanded into a series documenting the interiors of people’s homes in Tokyo and Yokohama. Contrary to the idea of prosperous, futuristic Japan, the Apartment series creates a composite of several lived-in and derelict interiors containing evidence of the recent past in the form of chipped paint, stained walls, and a stratum of personal effects. Endless Night further sifts through the hidden past by documenting the interiors of former brothels, an emotional experience that would help Miyako confront her fears of Yokosuka years later.
Miyako’s later works take on a more human scale with 1·9·4·7 (1988–1989) and Scars (1991–present). The former documents the hands and feet of women born in the year 1947 (the same age as the artist), showing how wrinkles, calluses, and other imperfections recall the body’s response to aging. The latter depicts close-up shots of scars with only the year and source (e.g., illness, accident, transplantation) of the injury given in the titles. While the project sounds clinical and impersonal (faces of subjects do not appear), the photographs do not treat bodily features as curios or deformations. Each starkly black and white image appears stately and evocative of the story behind the person to whom each bodily feature belongs.
These body-focused series, along with later works featuring her mother, depart from the gritty noir of Miyako’s work from the 1970s. While Yokosuka Story and Yokosuka Again portray the dehumanizing effects of US military occupation, photographs dating from the late 1980s onward attempt to humanize what might otherwise be considered abject or tragic, like aging or injury. Some of the most affecting works appear toward the end of the exhibit, with works from the series Mother’s (2000–2005), featuring images of her deceased mother’s belongings, and ひろしま / hiroshima (2007–2010), documenting the clothing and objects worn by women during the Hiroshima nuclear bombing of 1945.
In Mother’s, Miyako takes tender portraits of her mother’s keepsakes: a brush tangled with strands of her hair, the rounded point of used lipstick, a set of dentures, and articles of clothing that have gone through longtime use. Images dating from the later part of the series introduce chromogenic prints that enliven these objects through vibrant colors. These photographs provide the outlines of one woman’s life, which seems to not have ended with the passing of her body but instead continues through the presentation of these images. ひろしま / hiroshima likewise gives emotional account of how objects not only tell stories of people, but perform the role of companionship.
Tattered dresses, threadbare shoes, and other items of clothing damaged from the Hiroshima bombing are unsettling reminders of nuclear war, but Miyako photographs them in color against a light backdrop, allowing the flower prints and checkered patterns, with tears and threads running loose at the seams, to provide a sense of cheeriness. These objects once brought joy to their owners, and their owners ostensibly survived the horror of 1945 with these items in possession. The survivors may have long passed away, but these keepsakes still bear witness to what happened on the day of the bombing. They also paint a portrait of the people whose lives were so dramatically altered, giving a sense of what they might have been like prior to August 6, 1945, which so irrevocably defined their lives afterward.
The scope of Miyako’s photography documents the lives of Japanese women, during and after the war. They comprise portraits of individuals, a city, and a country whose wounds others might have tried to hide or minimize, if not for the artist’s efforts to pull the veil and allow the audience to see how much has healed and how much has not. These images are far more reliable accounts of postwar Japan than any totalizing national narrative could provide.
Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows continues at the J. Paul Getty Museum (1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles) through February 21.
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