Miyako Ishiuchi


1947, Kiryu, Gunma Prefecture

Portrait of an elderly Asian woman with grey hair
Miyako Ishiuchi; photo: © Maki Ishii

Raised in Yokosuka, home to the largest American naval base in Japan at that time, Miyako Ishiuchi (b. 1947) was taught while she was growing up to fear the city’s American section, especially the bar district where soldiers fraternized with Japanese women. Reports of violence there were frequent. She left Yokosuka as soon as she could–in 1966–to study design at the prestigious Tama Art University in Tokyo. There she participated in student protests that closed down the school for almost a year in 1969, part of a wave of student demonstrations across Japan, demanding university administration reform and fighting American influence in the region. She was also involved in the burgeoning women’s movement and formed a women’s group with two fellow students.

Ishiuchi initially worked in textiles, but by 1975 she was actively making photographs. She found her essential subject by confronting her past: in 1976 she returned to Yokosuka to photograph its American military population, then in decline with the end of the Vietnam War. The pictures she made there were, she said, “coughed up like black phlegm onto hundreds of stark white developing papers.”[1] Persuading her father to give her funds he had set aside for her dowry, she published a group of these photographs in her first book, Apartment, in 1978. Two more books of her Yokusuka pictures followed: Yokosuka Story (1979) and Endless Night (1981). In the latter, she focused on the crumbling bars and brothels that had so distressed her, now abandoned and being demolished. To firmly acknowledge the centrality of Yokosuka’s heritage for her, in 1981 she rented a cabaret in the city to hold an exhibition of this work. She later commented: “The photograph exhibit took place, as though in revenge, there in Yokosuka which was in America, in America which was in Yokosuka, a town which thrived from what two wars yielded, on a street now become a pathetic sight to see.”[2] She would stop photographing Yokosuka in 1990.

Ishiuchi’s unique perspective on the American presence in Japan—reflected in distinctively quiet but also emotionally riven photographs—drew the attention of Shoji Yamagishi, renowned editor of the journal Camera Mainichi. Ishiuchi was the only woman whose work he included in Japan: A Self-Portrait, the 1979 exhibition he organized for the International Center of Photography in New York. Thus introduced internationally, Ishiuchi’s particular vision drew the attention of other Japanese women photographers, especially Asako Narahashi, with whom she would later create the photographic magazine Main (1996–2000). In 1984 Kyoko Yamagishi, widow of Shoji Yamagishi, invited her to participate in a project with a large-format Polaroid camera. She used the occasion to photograph members of her high-school class of twenty years earlier, in the series Classmates (1984). This experience encouraged her to expand her subject matter in a radically new direction. Rather than photographing the place of trauma, which was Yokosuka for her, she photographed its effects, first on the body and later on its second skin, clothing. The project 1∙9∙4∙7, begun in 1987 and published in book form in 1990, involved the close-up examination of the hands and feet of women born, like her, in 1947. Carefully detailing what the bodies of women her age—neither young nor yet old—looked like, she identified her subjects only by birth year and profession. This intensified concentration on the body’s surface led Ishiuchi to her subsequent series, Scars (1991–2003). She has likened these marks on the human body to photographs themselves: “When I first encountered the scar, I reflected on photography. . . . While a person hopes to remain unblemished through life, all must sustain and live with wounds, visible and invisible . . . an imprint of the past, welded onto a part of the body.”[3]

By 1999 Ishiuchi began to photograph her mother, concentrating on her scars and other details of her aged body. This series of pictures would continue after her mother’s sudden death the next year, when Ishiuchi turned to her mother’s clothing and other personal effects, producing monumental pictures of items such as used lipsticks and worn undergarments, rendered like cobwebs with wear. Mother’s was presented in the Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005. More recently Ishiuchi has photographed clothing found after the atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima, spreading the garments on light boxes to suggest the personality of the wearer. Clearly used and often handmade, the clothing items embody their traumatic history but are photographed in a way that expresses a specific personality, even a spiritual presence.

— Sandra S. Phillips


  1. Miyako Ishiuchi, Yokosuka Story (Tokyo: Shashin Tsushinsha, 1979); quoted in Amanda Maddox, “Against the Grain: Ishiuchi Miyako and the Yokosuka Trilogy,” in Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015), 23.
  2. Miyako Ishiuchi, Yokosuka Again, 1980–1990 (Tokyo: Sokyu-sha & Mole, 1998); quoted in Maddox, “Against the Grain,” 28.
  3. Miyako Ishiuchi, Scars (Tokyo: Sokyu-sha, 2005), n.p.


Works in the Collection by Miyako Ishiuchi

Essays and Artist Talks

  • The end of the 1950s and the early years of the following decade marked an astonishingly rich transitional moment in the history of photography in both the United States and Japan. While a long tradition of photography existed in Japan before this period, the country’s relationship with the U.S. after World War II seems to have instigated a distinctive and wide-ranging reexamination of the medium—a reaction against classic photojournalism and prewar aestheticism in favor of more personal and expressive picture making. Several key exhibitions in the United States in the 1970s drew attention to these shifts, highlighting not only new currents in Japanese photography but also the important ties between Japanese photographers and the Americans who were looking at their work with interest. By the 1970s Japan had fully recovered from its postwar economic hardships and was experiencing a period of prosperity that would lead to the “bubble economy” of the 1980s. The abundance of the times and the lifting of restrictions on travel inspired a generation of young people to leave Japan and go abroad—often to the United States. Among them were photographers such as Eikoh Hosoe, who visited the U.S. frequently (he spoke fluent English, which was extremely useful); Ikko Narahara, who stayed in America for four years and studied with Diane Arbus; Ken Ohara, who has lived and worked in the U.S. since 1962; and Kikuji Kawada, Keizo Kitajima, and Takuma Nakahira, who traveled to Europe and mainland Asia. These excursions, often lasting years, were part of a larger surge of exploration of the U.S. and Europe by Japanese artists in many media. The issues that occupied Japanese photographers during this time and the ways they engaged with them were in some cases responses to The Family of Man, a landmark exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, that traveled to Japan in 1956.[1] The show included 503 photographs made in 68 countries—mainly journalistic works, presented with the intention of generating a sense of world community and of drawing attention to the dangers of waging war in the new atomic age (fig. 1). Edward Steichen, the charismatic director of MoMA’s photography department, asked for Yasuhiro Ishimoto’s help with the Japanese version of the show, having previously met the photographer and displayed his work at the museum. Ishimoto’s role, however, was ultimately minimal; instead he became a central figure in the transition of Japanese photography toward a new kind of expression.[2]
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related exhibition

  • Photography Now
    related exhibition

    Photography Now

    China, Japan, Korea

    September 12–December 20, 2009

    Drawn entirely from SFMOMA’s collection, Photography Now showcases pictures by nearly 30 contemporary artists working in China, Japan, and Korea. Documentary work from China depicts a shifting culture, in particular rapid urbanization and the effects of industrialization on society. Inspired by Robert Frank, Luo Dan journeyed from Shanghai to Tibet, making pictures that explore dramatic economic changes across China. In Japan, Rinko Kawauchi makes lyrical pictures that focus on the poetic details of daily life, and Yasumasa Morimura examines the nature of cultural identity through appropriation. Korean photographer Bohnchang Koo’s minimal photographs of ordinary architectural elements reflect upon the passage of time.

    This exhibition is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and is generously supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

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