Ishiuchi Miyako @Fergus McCaffrey

JTF (just the facts): A total of 39 framed gelatin silver prints and 33 framed chromogenic prints, measuring between 9 x 6 inches and approximately 60.5 x 41.5 inches, hung salon style on variously colored walls on the gallery’s two floors. Edition numbers for the color photographs range from 8 to 20; no edition information is provided for the black-and-white photos. The works on view were made between 1981 and 2017. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Self-taught photographer Ishiuchi Miyako’s photographs only rarely contain recognizable individuals. People appear in them as fugitive presences, shadowy figures in motion, or else in extreme closeup, reduced to the scar or deformity that is the real subject of the picture. But as this exhibition—the artist’s first major show in the US since her retrospective at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2015—makes clear, the body, as fragile shell subject to insult and dissolution, as well as a stand-in for vulnerable populations and environments, is her greatest theme.

Ishiuchi was born in 1947 in Kiryu and raised in Yokosuka, a port city that has been the site of a US naval base since 1945. Originally trained as a textile artist, she began taking pictures in the mid-1970s while living in Tokyo. At the time, social, economic, and political upheaval in Japan was spurring Japanese photographers to find new forms of expression. The trauma of atomic war, the Americanization of Japanese culture, and the rapid pace of change in Japan’s urban centers all contributed to an approach to picture making—in particular, the style of journalistic photography known as are-bure-boke (grainy, blurry, and out of focus) and popularized by Daido Moriyama and others—that emphasized interiority, immediacy and unease.

In 1976, Ishiuchi returned to her hometown of Yokosuka to photograph its narrow alleyways and crumbling buildings, and the resulting series of large scale, high-contrast black-and-white prints garnered her early acclaim. She continued to photograph Yokosuka for much of the 1980s, and selections from several bodies of work devoted to the city, its former red light district, and its waterfront, open this exhibition. In these photographs, Yokosuka is a body under siege; soot runs down pockmarked walls; a warship looms behind a white-painted chain; a carp in a tank waits for death. Towers dominate every horizon, anonymous cement buildings line the streets, and polluted water laps at trash strewn beaches.

The purpose of much of the industrial equipment in these pictures is mysterious, adding to the sense that this is an alien landscape; while the deep blacks achieved in the printing give them the appearance of images from a dream. At the same time, the photographs themselves have a palpable physical presence; Ishiuchi has likened making these prints—which were as large as she could manage alone—to working with fabric, and their uneven surfaces, staple holes, and creases echo the battered walls and peeling paint of the cityscapes they depict.

In contrast to the grittiness of the Yokosuka photographs, the works in the next gallery, from a series begun in 1991 and ongoing, are fine-grained and nearly monotone. Each is of a woman who has been scarred by illness, accident, or war. Some show the woman’s whole body; in these, her face is always turned away from the camera. In most, however, the frame is taken up with an expanse of shattered or puckered skin whose topologies are reminiscent of the disrupted land- and cityscapes in Ishiuchi’s Yokosuka photographs. As in those works, the look of the prints corresponds to subject matter, this time with the silvery tones of the photographs echoing the women’s silvery scars.

One of these pictures is of the artist’s mother, and her death in 2001 prompted a new series of color photographs of the woman’s possessions. These range from bottles of scent and lipsticks to a set of false teeth and a pair of old-fashioned knickers, still in the shape of the wearer. On view in an upstairs gallery, the series is joined by two subsequent, and related series, one of Frida Kahlo’s clothing, which the artist was invited to photograph in 2012, and the other—started in 2007 and updated annually—of clothes and accessories from the collection of the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum.

Of the three series, the most captivating is the series devoted to Kahlo’s accoutrements. The victim of a street accident as a teen, Kahlo had over 40 surgeries in her lifetime. To hide her broken body, she affected a flamboyant style, often dressing in traditional clothing. To accentuate the divide between Kahlo’s public persona and her private suffering, Ishiuchi made two sets of photographs—one consisting of images of her rings, dresses, and cigarette case (and a pair of pretty fabulous sunglasses); the other of the specially made corsets and shoes hidden beneath her long dresses and shawls.

The most horrifying is the series of photographs of objects from Hiroshima, all worn by women on the day the US dropped an atomic bomb on that city. They include scorched gloves, pretty dresses stained with blood, and broken eyeglasses. Though reminiscent of her mentor Shomei Tomatsu’s black-and-white pictures of similar objects, Ishiuchi’s are, in their depictions of the silk stockings and delicate watches their owners likely died wearing, perhaps more shocking. But it is the most abstract images here that are the most troubling: a series of five close-up pictures of a crumpled pink muslin dress that resemble nothing so much as photographs of flayed skin.

Ishiuchi’s custom design for this exhibition, in which the works hang salon style on differently colored walls—midnight blue for the early black-and-white works, silvery grey for the photographs of scars, pale pink for the Frida Kahlo images—seems intended to echo the series’ various emotional registers. But instead, it more often detracts from the pictures’ essential power. As the only woman in the group of influential photographers to come out of Japan’s postwar era, Ishiuchi had a perspective that was largely unique. Her affective and strongly feminist work, which weaves together personal, historical, and universal narratives, makes an impact all on its own.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $4000 to $54000, with the vintage prints from Yokosuka at the top of that range. Ishiuchi’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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