Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

An Interview with Ishiuchi Miyako

Yuri Mitsuda speaks with Ishiuchi Miyako about the evolution of her explorations of time and how she has negotiated a field dominated by men.

 - September 29, 2015

Through her images of subjects ranging from the American Occupation of Japan and the bombing of Hiroshima, to women’s scarred bodies and her mother’s and Frida Kahlo’s personal effects, Ishiuchi Miyako, born in 1947, has explored the passage of time and history. Like Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama, renowned Japanese photographers who emerged in the 1950s and ’60s, Ishiuchi’s early work has been shaped by the residual presence of
World War II. Her first series, Yokosuka Story (1976–77), focused on her coastal hometown, the site of a U.S. naval base that was permeated by American culture. Projects that closely followed—Apartment (1977–78), which explored the interiors of Tokyo’s postwar housing, and Endless Night (1978–80), for which she photographed brothels—honed Ishiuchi’s vision as well as her process; for her, the image is a physical object made by hand in the darkroom.

For more recent work such as Mother’s (2000–2005), featured at the 2005 Venice Biennale; ひろしま / Hiroshima (2007); and Frida (2013), Ishiuchi turned to color, taking a forensic approach to examine clothing and objects laden with complex histories, underscoring the idea that the traces of time’s passage are her true subjects. Last year, Ishiuchi won the prestigious Hasselblad Award, and, on October 6, a major exhibition of her work, Postwar Shadows, will open at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In this excerpt from the Fall 2015 “Interview Issue” of Aperture magazine, Yuri Mitsuda, curator at the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art, speaks with Ishiuchi about the evolution of her explorations of time and how she has negotiated a field dominated by men.

black and white photograph

Yokosuka Story #58, 1976–77

Yuri Mitsuda: Were you ever excluded because you were a woman?

Ishiuchi Miyako: Not at all. I mean, Tomatsu loved women. Moriyama too. So there were always women around. I had no interest in them that way, though, as men. There wasn’t one guy who was my type among all those photography guys. Thank goodness. But it can be an ordeal, being a woman. People constantly accosting you. I watched it happen all around me. There were a lot of women who wanted to do something in photography, and one after another I saw their efforts come to nothing.

black and white photograph

Yokosuka Story #98, 1976–77

YM: Why do you think that was?

IM: They underestimated how hard it would be. In my case, I thought I would do Yokosuka Story and then quit. Like I was getting back at an enemy. Yokosuka was a difficult place for a woman because of the sexual violence that occurred there. Rape was a part of daily life, but nobody saw it as a crime. I did not experience rape myself, but it scarred me. I’m gonna kill you once and for all; that was the feeling. That city, Yokosuka, it had inflicted so much on me, so much trauma, so many scars. If I don’t kill you I can’t move on—that was the feeling I had.

You had to have that kind of intense feeling. I thought I’d do it once and be done, but of course, I ended up continuing. I looked around and thought, Well, now I’ll do Hyakka Ryoran (A hundred flowers bloom, 1976).

black and white photograph

Endless Night #71, 1978–80

YM: Hyakka Ryoran was an all-woman show you planned for Shimizu Gallery, wasn’t it? So you had the sense that you needed to do things as just women, as women photographers.

IM: Of course I did. We wanted to do something just for women, but separate from the women’s lib movement. The mainstream world of Japanese photography was absolutely a boys’ club. People outside Japan noticed it too, and they were right. I had no interest in them, at all. The workshop group was a boys’ club, too, of course, but the form it took was different. They were interesting, at least, Tomatsu and all those guys. They were fun to hang around with. We went out drinking every week on the Shinjuku Golden Street. We had fun drinking
together. I got my share of sexual harassment, of course. They were old-school guys, after all. It sounds idiotic saying it like that now, but that’s how it was.

YM: The excess energy produced by artists, by people engaged in making things—it doesn’t always lead to the most moral conduct.

IM: And there were plenty of people who left themselves vulnerable. But never me. I got a reputation as pigheaded, a dragon lady. But I stuck to my guns.

black and white photograph

Mother’s #3, 2000

YM: If you didn’t, it would come to nothing.

IM: They’ll undermine you, drag you down.

YM: Do you mean how Hyakka Ryoran was thought of as unsuccessful?

IM: No, it was just completely ignored. There’s hardly any record that it happened at all. The only attention it got was in [the tabloid] Heibon Punch. They wrote about women taking pictures of men, of women making men strip naked. So that got picked up on television, as a kind of scandal.

black and white photograph

Apartment #14, 1977–78


YM: At the time, Diane Arbus was getting a lot of attention as a female photographer.

IM: But I didn’t have a lot of interest in her. She was a special case, though. Arbus wasn’t popular as a woman; she was popular as an American.

color photograph

Frida by Ishiuchi #50, 2012

YM: These past ten years you’ve exhibited more and more outside Japan. Do you think that’s expanded your view on things? Were there things you encountered that surprised you?

IM: I was surprised by the Hasselblad Award. I was even more surprised to learn that they knew everything about me—they had all the data, right at their fingertips!

These days, I have many more opportunities to show outside, rather than in Japan. And I find that the respect people have for photography [in the West] is different. Photographers are artists. In Japan, a photographer is just a photographer. No one thinks of photographers as artists in Japan.

color photograph

ひろしま/Hiroshima #69 (Donor: Abe, H.), 2007. All photographs © Ishiuchi Miyako and courtesy The Third Gallery Aya, Osaka, and Michael Hoppen Gallery, London


YM: There’s a history of Japanese photographers saying things like, “I’m no artist; I’m just a photographer.” Especially photographers who specialize in street shots, in Ihei Kimura–style documentary photography. There’s a tendency to want to minimize the role of art, to rebel against the legacy of fine-art photography. That was the basis, or history, on which much of Japanese photography was formed.

IM: Of course. And I don’t care about definitions of art, about what art is or isn’t. All I’m doing is what I feel I must do, regardless of any label.

color photograph

Frida by Ishiuchi #86, 2012


YM: All the shows you’re putting on, all the books you’re writing: your sixties have been kind of a turning point, haven’t they? How do you feel now, looking back over them?

IM: I’ve had free time up until now. Everyone else has been so busy, but I’ve had the freedom to do things. So I pushed myself past my limits, to do more than I really am able to. Or rather, to do everything I am able to. I know what I can’t do, so I only do what I know I can. I’ve started to think lately that perhaps I really am suited to photography. That’s the potential of photography, to be freer and freer, to do things with ever more freedom.

Translated from the Japanese by Brian Bergstrom.