Interview with Miyako Ishiuchi
Miyako Ishiuchi, a receptionist of the 2014 Hasselblad award, is an internationally renowned Japanese photographer. She was born in 1947 and grew up in Yokosuka, which was influenced by a postwar American military base. Her recent work includes pictures of her mother’s remains and personal effects left by those who lost their lives by an atomic bomb fallen to Hiroshima. We interviewed her about her passion to photography, the themes of her photographs and her recent exhibition of Hiroshima in New York.
– For the past few years, you have been renowned as a photographer of personal effects left behind by those who lost their lives by an atomic bomb fallen to Hiroshima. What made you take pictures of these remains in Hiroshima?
I hadn’t had any interest in Hiroshima and had never been there until I started to work on a project of the personal belongings by those in Hiroshima in 2007 for a publishing company.
Before me, many photographers had already taken pictures in Hiroshima and Hiroshima had never come up to me as a theme for my photographs. However, a publisher whom I met at my exhibition of “Mother’s” in Tokyo, which showcased pieces that I introduced at the Venice Biennale as a representative of Japan Pavilion, was eager to have me to take pictures in Hiroshima and his passion changed my mind.
During my first visit to Hiroshima, I just walked around the city to find things that I wanted to take pictures of. Remains that I encountered at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum surprised me since they were completely different from what I imagined. I was impressed by their colors and texture. They were so much more than remains of victims. The gap between my original image of the remains and what I found inspired me, and I started to work on “Hiroshima.”
– What technique did you use to take pictures of the remains at Hiroshima?
I was so nervous about taking pictures of the artifacts left in Hiroshima that I considered buying another camera. But I ended up photographing them in the same way as “Mother’s” by using my hand-held 35mm camera.
When I took pictures for “Mother’s”, I attached my mother’s remains to a glass window and photographed them against the sunlight. There were some items from Hiroshima, of which I wanted to take pictures against the sun but I couldn’t tape them to a window. I had someone make a light box for them so the items to be translucent. The light box was 60 inches long to accommodate one piece, and it was trucked from Tokyo to the basement of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum where I took the pictures. I photographed other items in the sun, in a hallway.
– By taking pictures of things left behind Hiroshima, you brought these archives back to life.
I would say yes since the items that I photographed are not open to the public at the museum. Around 19,000 pieces of the collection are in a digital catalogue and you can see real items stored in a storage downstairs of the museum only upon request. Therefore, most of my audience saw the objects in my pictures for the first time. Some other photographers have taken pictures of the same pieces but they took them in black and white. I may be the first artist who photographed the remains in color.
I have taken pictures of remains from Hiroshima as if they were as alive as human beings. Although people who wore these remains are not here anymore I want to capture the time when they were used.
I had originally been commissioned by the publishing company to photograph Hiroshima for the photo book. But when I learned that new items are donated to the museum every year, I have taken this project on as my own work and returned to Hiroshima annually to photograph these items.
– Have you had any changes in impression of Hiroshima in the past 7 years?
Surprisingly, I still have the same fresh feelings to personal effects left in Hiroshima as when I started takeing the pictures seven years ago. Whenever I see new personal belongings, I am fascinated by their beauty and am blessed to have a chance to see them.
– How did you like your stay in New York to have your exhibition of “Hiroshima” at Andrew Roth Gallery, which was the first exhibition in the USA?
I was nervous because having my exhibition in the USA meant a lot to me because of the theme, Hiroshima. But because Andrew Roth exhibited the photos and made the photo book, certain ideas about the U.S. as aggressor and Japan as victim were washed away. At the opening reception of “Hiroshima”, I had a feeling that the theme of Hiroshima will keep on expanding as a theme.
– In the USA, Hiroshima is a controversial theme and an atomic bomb exhibition at Smithsonian American Art Museum was cancelled around twenty years ago. At your opening, people were in a good spirits, even though for Americans Hiroshima is something that they do not want to talk about. Did you receive any memorable comments from people at the reception?
An American was telling me that for him, Hiroshima and Auschwitz were similar in that both of them are visible disasters for humans. This way of thinking surprised me a bit since Japanese have never found any connection between Hiroshima and Auschwitz. However, I gradually realized what he meant to say, which gave me a new perspective of Hiroshima. I was also impressed with his words telling me that my photographs of things left behind in Hiroshima have a slightly different meaning from objects left by victims of the atomic bomb.
– When you exhibited your pictures taken at Hiroshima at a museum in Canada, your pieces did not have any captions, which may probably have led descendants of victims from Auschwitz to recall things left behind by their families.
It is very common to have captions accompany photographs but I try to avoid explaining my pictures, because I don’t want to limit your imagination by using captions. I want the audience to look at my photographs through their own perspectives. I have followed this style for many years.
– This original style led you to receiving the 2014 Hasselblad award, which is said to be the Nobel prize in photography. What did you feel when your award was celebrated here in New York?
I was very surprised to be invited to a party to celebrate my receipt of Hasselblad in New York because in Japan nobody did that for me. In Japan, I threw a party to thank people who supported me, but I had never expected someone to arrange a party in New York to celebrate my Hasselblad. This shows American know what a great honor it is to receive the Hasselblad whereas the Japanese don’t, which made me realize America is more culturally developed in terms of photography than Japan. The receipt of Hasselblad implies I’m expected to be an ambassador of the future of photography as a Japanese female. I want to support Japanese female photographers, and I mentioned it in a speech at the reception of Hasselblad. This award means a lot to me since it gave me a chance to move forward.
– Next year, you are planning to have an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
At that exhibition, you can see my life’s journey starting from Yokosuka all the way to Hiroshima under a theme of “Postwar Shadows”, and you will find my personal history coincides with Japan’s postwar history. I was born in provincial Gunma prefecture and moved to Yokosuka at the age of 6 and lived there until 19 years old. Yokosuka is a city known for an American military base as well as a base for the Japan’s Self Defense Force. It was a time when Japan was experiencing post war baby boom and Japanese were divided over signing the revised Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan widely known as “Anpo” in Japanese. I think my childhood life in that city during the turbulence after the war has affected my photographs.
However, I have never consciously throught about the connection between my childhood experiences and my photographs. The exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum made me realize that my personal approach to photography happened to trace postwar Japanese history. Although “Postwar Shadows” seems to be my original expression, it is only in retrospect that my pictures have this theme in common.
– How did Yokosuka affect your life as a photographer?
When I moved to Yokosuka at the age of 6, I was quite shocked and scared by an American base, which I had never seen before. As a typical city with a military base, in Yokosuka, there were streets that girls could never walk on because sexual assaults frequently happened, though they were never publicized. Living in this city with the military base in my childhood made me realize that that I am a woman.
While I was living in Yokosuka, I unconsciously bore some strange feelings to this city although it was hard to explain it in words. As an outsider who came to the city at 6 years old I was sensitive to unusual things around me, which were not obvious to people who were born there. I grew up in an ambivalent environment where I admired American culture in a city dominated by an American military base.
I left Yokosuka when I was 19 years old, and after that I started to take pictures. I had been thinking about what to photograph, when Yokosuka came to me. Ironically, I decided to take pictures of Yokosuka because I never wanted to go back there. However, since Yokosuka is a city where I spent most of my childhood, I wanted to discover this city, which eventually led to explore myself, at the starting point of my career. So I went back to Yokosuka with my camera and a map and walked everywhere in the city to get to know the city as much as possible. I made my debut with “Yokosuka Story” in 1977 when Momoe Yamaguchi had a great hit by her song called “Yokosuka story.”
As I developed the countless photographs I took in Yokosuka, I poured out all the ambivalence blocked up inside me. I felt so cleansed that I felt maybe I didn’t have to take any more photographs. But I continued my work with “APARTMENT” and “Endless Nights”, and they formed my first trilogy, along with “Yokosuka Story.”
–In 1979, you were awarded the 4th Kimura Ihei Memorial Photography Award by your early photo book of “APARTMENT.”
I never studied photography at school and had not known of Ihei Kimura. He was a photographer who used to be a director of Asahi Newspaper. After he passed away, the Asahi Newspaper acclaimed his achievement and established Kimura Ihei Memorial Photography Award for young professional photographers, which became Japan’s highest photography award. I was the first female who received it.
After my early trilogy, I stopped photographing scenery and buildings and I started to focus on human bodies. This is why you would say my photograph style changes frequently. But in myself I have had a consistent theme since my early professional life as a photographer even though objects have changed.
My personal interest is in things that develop as time passes and that represent the accumulation of the passage of time. I want to make these things come alive through my pictures. For example, scars are evidence of what happened in the past but at the same time they are also a memory in yourself. This theme has continued to my photo book of “Hiroshima.” It is natural that I came all the way to Hiroshima since my life as a professional photographer started in Yokosuka. I have followed the same theme in different objects.
Surprisingly, I was awarded Hasselblad by being recognized this photograph style. I was told that there was some connection between my photographs and Northern myth. The Northern myth has a famous story that three ladies weave vines under a big tree, which actually means they are weaving destinies. Like these women, I was considered to be a photographer who weaves passage of time through taking pictures. I’m very grateful that my photograph style was translated this way. Since I studied weaving before becoming a photographer, I am familiar with fabrics and materials of the things left behind in Hiroshima, which helped me to take pictures of them. Everything I experienced in my life has benefited my life, and I love my life as a professional photographer.
Born in Gunma in Japan in 1947 and grew up in Yokosuka, a city with an American military base, during the turbulent of post war. After leaving Yokosuka at the age of 19, she started to take pictures and made her debut with “Yokosuka Story” in 1977. That photo book was created to discover the city where she spent her childhood, and formed her first trilogy along with “APARTMENT” and “Endless Nights”, those of which captured atmosphere of cities. Since her photo book of “1947”, in which she took pictures of hands and legs of a woman who was born in the same year as her, she has taken pictures of scars left on bodies. In 1979, the 4th Kimura Ihei Memorial Photography Award was given to her photo book of “APARTMENT.” She became a representative of Japan Pavillion at the Venice Biennale in 2005 as her work of “Mother’s”, which documented her mother’s remains. Since 2007, she has concentrated on taking pictures of personal effects left by those who lost their lives by an atomic bomb fallen to Hiroshima. In 2014, she became the third Japanese recipient of Hasselblad Award by being recognized of her photograph style of things that develop as time passes and that represent the accumulation of the passage of time.