Miyako Ishiuchi

Miyako Ishiuchi (b. 27th March, 1947 in Nitta District, Gunma, Japan) is fascinated by negative beauties– a phrase which encapsulates not only the formal properties of her photographic work, but also the content.

Growing up in the town of Yokosuka, a Japanese – and eventually American – naval base, Miyako became accustomed to proximity with scarred landscapes. In her words, her environment was a town full of wounds– a theme which became an anchor for her artistic endeavours.

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Keen to escape a town frequently marred by violence, Miyako left Yokosuka at her earliest opportunity, enrolling at Tokyos prestigious Tama Art University to study textiles.

During this time she became involved in activism – including protests against American influence in the region – but didnt integrate this into her creative practice until about 1975, when she took up photography and turned her lens towards the town of her youth. In the years since, her innovative work has cemented her as one of the leading women in photography today.

Her first major work, Yokosuka Story (1977), is a series of forty black and white prints – usually displayed in a grid formation – which captures tension between American and Japanese culture within the small port. The images are characterised by striking juxtapositions; among photographs of dilapidated infrastructure and barren panoramas, an image of a dog, peering up at the photographer as her shadow looms over the frame, suggests the paradoxical yet persistent presence of absenceitself – history reconfigured as a kind of haunting.

Miyakos focus on Japanese identity in flux associated her with the Provokemovement, named for Provoke magazine, a publication which – despite running for only three issues during the late 1960s – had a profound impact upon Japanese visual language during the subsequent decades.

Self-consciously subjective and visceral, Provokeera images contrasted heavily with the mainstream style of photojournalism popularised by Western publications. Commenting that she took photographs to be in the dark room, Miyako frequently altered her images during their post-processing – for example, by exposing images for longer than necessary to darken their hue.

The grainy aesthetic which emerges, coupled with the delicate slowness of the development process, deepens the psychological character of the photographs and their kinship with the photographer.

Despite producing two more series about the town, Apartment (1979) and Endless Night (1981), Miyako eventually moved away from photographing Yokosuka. Remaining fascinated by the concept of scarsas vessels of memory, she began to photograph more organicdistortions, interpreting the human body as its own landscape shaped by experience and trauma.

Her later projects, 1·9·4·7 (1988–1989) and Scars (1991–present) feature dramatic close-ups of the bodys surface, highlighting the contours of wrinkles, blemishes, and old wounds.

For Miyako, these marks represent imprint[s] of the past welded onto […] the body; rather than sensationalising them, the photographs venerate these scars as emblems of personal history and identity.

Most recently, Miyako has applied this metaphor to series focusing on garments – both her late mothers, and belongings recovered in the wake of the Hiroshima atomic bomb explosion. The aesthetic continuity across these series cements Miyakos propensity for evoking the humanity at the heart of absence, a pathos which deterioration cannot wholly diminish.

See Miyako’s work | sfmoma.org

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