Ishiuchi Miyako, Moving Away

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Sokyusha (here or here). Hardcover (225×223 mm), 92 pages, with 70 color reproductions. Includes a short text by the artist in English/Japanese. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Now in her 70s, the Japanese photographer Ishiuchi Miyako has little she needs to prove to anyone. She was the most prominent woman in the group of innovative post-war photographers who pioneered the now iconic are-bure-boke style of imagery in the late 1960s and 1970s, and in the decades since, she has continued to make memorable bodies of work, including powerful still lifes of charred and melted Hiroshima artifacts and the intimate possessions of Frida Kahlo. She has won most of the important awards a photographer might care about (including the Kimura Ihei and Hasselblad Foundation awards), and her photographs can be found in the collections of the major museums who understand the importance of Japanese photography.

With such an esteemed artistic pedigree trailing her every step, her recent photobook Moving Away might at first glance seem unexpectedly modest. After living in the same house for some 40+ years, she recently felt the urge to move, and as the process took shape over the period of a few years, she made some final images of her home, her neighborhood, and even herself (for the first time). There is essentially no action, and very few people aside from the artist, in these pictures. We follow along as she wanders through her town, surveys the nearby landscapes, quiet streets, and water views, tracks the new train station and construction projects being built, and then returns home, to look more closely at her own rooms, her small garden, her darkroom and workspace, and the view from her balcony. In terms of subject matter, Moving Away could hardly be more unassuming or understated.

One of the reasons Ishiuchi’s still life photographs have been so consistently successful is that she has focused her attention so directly on those objects, forcing herself to observe them patiently and methodically and encouraging them to let their hidden personal ghosts come forth. And it is with this sense of presence and restrained pace that she has approached turning her camera back onto her own life. Perhaps infused with the passing of time and the slowing down of age, her pictures here are lyrically personal, her interest in the mundane details of her life leading to a mellow cadence that need not rush. The charms of these photographs reveal themselves slowly, and sometimes elusively like the companionship of a cat, leaving us with a wistful sense of her appreciation for the humble resonances of her life.

According to her short essay, all of the outdoor pictures in Moving Away were made within one kilometer of Ishiuchi’s house, so it’s not as if she’s giving us a grand tour of her surroundings. Instead, she heads out on foot, walking to the train stations being rebuilt (with their requisite cranes and rubble), looking at the roadway overpasses, and ultimately ending up down by the sea, where piers and marinas dot the waterways. All along the way, she takes time to notice the flowering bushes, the warm gentle flare of the afternoon light, the families walking hand in hand, the ducks and schools of fish that make the water their home, and the stubborn trees that hold out against the encroachments of time. In the center of town, perched in the middle of a roundabout, Ishiuchi returns again and again to a statue of a mother and child, but interestingly, she always shows it to us from behind, with the figures walking away. To me, that choice of vantage point implies that Ishiuchi recognizes that time marches on, and while she acknowledges she is being left behind in some sense, there is an inherent optimism to those figures continuing to push forward.

With these daily excursions packed up and finished (the outdoor shots bookend the flow of imagery in the photobook), Ishiuchi turns her attention to the interior of her house. It is a modest private space, marked by the practicalities of kitchen, dining area, bedroom, bathroom, and such, with a few places reserved for working (an enlarger, some shelving, some darkroom chemicals and equipment), and a few more, like a small lush garden and a balcony, that offer some quiet respite from the city around her. Most of her pictures feel more like moods, or even indirect portraits of herself, rather than documents, where the changing light of the day triggers both her aesthetic attention and her nostalgia. She’s repeatedly drawn to the shadows cast through the curtains in the afternoon, which create the potential for warm silhouettes and dappled patterning, while she saves the quieter pure light of the morning for contemplative views of the garden. A dashingly young David Bowie makes an appearance (as a poster), as do many of her own exhibitions (again as posters), and she seems happy to discover the unexpectedly elegant complexity of still lifes found among a gathering of her worn kitchen utensils, the dishes drying in the dish rack, or darkroom measuring cups perched on a windowsill. The cover image of Moving Away offers us some blurred clothespins set against a sunny sky, which feels like a perfect emblem of her perspective here – seeing from the inside out, the rhythms of home providing a simple frame for what might come next.

The most direct impressions of Ishiuchi’s state of mind come in her self-portraits. While she never shows herself to the camera straight on, she finds numerous creative ways to place herself inside the frame. Outside, she catches herself in round traffic mirrors and casts her looming shadow across various scenes like Lee Friedlander. Inside, she narrows in on her hands and feet, showing us the textures of her wrinkled skin and weary toes, sees herself reflected in rain spattered windows, or uses the warm afternoon sun behind her to remind us of her presence. It’s almost as if she is using photography to reintroduce herself to herself, her outstretched hands providing a humble visual refrain of “I am here”, “It’s me”, or “I feel this”. Likely her photographic eye can’t stop from using her hands and feet to enliven echoes of pattern (down stairs, across wood slats, on floral linens), but largely these images feel like proof of presence, or last tokens of memory for some future look back.

As meditations on aging go, Ishiuchi’s Moving Away is remarkably self aware and unexpectedly positive. In these pictures, she is not only measuring her past, but also her present, and the self she is now. Of course, there are moments of sentimentality here, but many more are steeped in long familiarity, in the flows of everyday behavior that will now need to change. But never once do the photographs in Moving Away feel heavy or maudlin – in a few, she is clearly saying goodbye to something quietly treasured, but mostly the pictures signal that Ishiuchi is emotionally ready for change, having now come to terms with the life that took place in this particular place. In closing this chapter and letting go, she bravely makes room for something new. In the image on the title page of Moving Away, the buds are just about to bloom – Ishiuchi is undeniably aware of the rhythms of her world, and still gently optimistic about what is to come.

Collector’s POV: Ishiuchi Miyako is represented by Michael Hoppen Gallery in London (here). Surprisingly, Ishiuchi’s work has little consistent secondary market history, with just a few prints coming up for auction in the past few years. As a result, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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