Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows

Discover the groundbreaking work of Ishiuchi Miyako, whose photographs powerfully fuse the personal with the political. Her remarkable career has greatly impacted the history of postwar Japanese photography, and has notably influenced subsequent generations of Japanese women.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

A maverick in the history of photography, Ishiuchi Miyako (b. 1947) burst onto the scene in Tokyo during the mid-1970s with gritty, emotional work that shocked the male-dominated photography establishment in Japan of that era.

Since then she has continued to fuse the personal and political in her photographs by interweaving aspects of her own identity and experience with the complex history of postwar Japan that emerged from the shadows cast by American occupation.

This exhibition traces Ishiuchi’s prolific career and acknowledges her profound influence. When originally presented at the Getty Museum in 2015, it included photographs and objects from her personal archive.

Ishiuchi Miyako at Her Exhibition Endless Night, Nikon Salon © Jun Miki, Jun Miki, 1980-04, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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At the request of Ishiuchi Miyako, her name appears in Japanese order in this exhibition, with her family name listed before her given name. To maintain consistency, all Japanese names cited in this exhibition appear in this order.

Ishiuchi Miyako © Maki Ishii by Maki IshiiThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Born Fujikura Yōko, the artist Ishiuchi Miyako spent her formative years in Yokosuka, a Japanese city where the United States established a large naval base in 1945. She studied textile design at Tama Art University in Tokyo in the late 1960s, a period when the student-led anti-university protest movement swept across Japan. 

Ishiuchi Miyako © Maki Ishii by Maki IshiiThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Prior to graduation, Ishiuchi decided to quit school and, after receiving a camera and photographic equipment in 1975, began to pursue photography. Since the presentation of her landmark series Yokosuka Story in 1977, she has maintained a successful career as a photographer, with numerous international solo exhibitions to her name.

Yokosuka Story #73 (1976/1977) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum


When Ishiuchi and her family moved to Yokosuka in 1953, she was shocked by the prevalence of American military culture there, and quickly began to fear the base, its occupying soldiers, and specific neighborhoods.

For years she harbored these anxieties. After moving away from Yokosuka in 1966, she described it as “a place that I thought I’d never go back to, a city I wouldn’t want to walk in twice.”

Yokosuka Story #30 (1976/1977) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Ishiuchi eventually returned to Yokosuka on weekends between October 1976 and March 1977 to photograph the city. Filled with emotion and fueled by dark memories, Ishiuchi traversed the city on foot and by car, chauffeured by her mother who worked as a driver for the U.S. military. 

Questioned by police multiple times while making this work, Ishiuchi experienced the kind of danger she could only sense during her childhood.

Yokosuka Story #121 (1976/1977) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Using a darkroom that she set up in her parents’ home, Ishiuchi printed her photographs of Yokosuka for an exhibition at Nikon Salon in Tokyo in 1977. The work features black borders and heavy grain, which represent memories Ishiuchi “coughed up like black phlegm onto hundreds of stark white developing papers.”

With money her father reserved for her wedding, Ishiuchi financed the production of prints, as well as the related publication, Yokosuka Story, named after the title of a Japanese pop song. Grainy, moody, and deeply personal, this project jolted the photography community and established her career.

Yokosuka Again #6 (1980/1990) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum


In 1980, feeling that her work in Yokosuka was unfinished, Ishiuchi returned to photograph places not represented in her book Yokosuka Story. For this new project, titled Yokosuka Again, she focused on Honchō—the central neighborhood where American military presence felt especially concentrated, with the U.S. naval base and EM (Enlisted Men’s) Club located there.

She targeted the places that terrified her most, including Dobuita Dōri (Gutter Alley), a street populated with bars where American soldiers and prostitutes fraternized. Forbidden to enter it as a child, this street represented the epicenter of Ishiuchi’s anxiety—though she had tried to photograph there in the past, she always ran away before she gained the courage to make a single picture.

EM Club #28 (1990) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

For six months Ishiuchi rented an abandoned cabaret on Dobuita Dōri where she set up a photographic enlarger that could facilitate the production of large-scale prints. With the help of friends, she later converted the cabaret into an exhibition space for those photographs. Her project in Yokosuka continued intermittently until 1990, when the dilapidated EM Club was razed.

The process of making Yokosuka Again, akin to an excavation of deep-seated memories, represents Ishiuchi’s final triumph over the conflicting emotions she had for the city where she spent much of her childhood and adolescence.

Apartment #26 (1977/1978) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum


When Ishiuchi exhibited Yokosuka Story at Nikon Salon in 1977, the chairman of the Salon’s steering committee asked about her next project. Without hesitation, she responded “apartments.” Although she had only photographed a few apartment buildings in Yokosuka by that point, Ishiuchi recognized the potential of this subject. 

For 13 years she lived with her family in a cheaply constructed postwar building in Yokosuka, inhabiting a tiny apartment with an earthen floor and communal bathroom.

Apartment #48 (1977/1978) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In 1977, Ishiuchi began to seek out derelict apartments in Tokyo and other cities. With the permission of residents, she photographed rooms and interiors in the buildings, occasionally portraying the occupants. Her images inside these cramped quarters reveal the grim conditions of each building—peeling paint, dimly lit hallways, and stained walls “steeped in the odor of people who move about”—and suggest many stories housed within these dwellings.

She hoped the disparate rooms and buildings in Apartment, when presented together, would appear as though they were made at the same location. This desire to create a fictitious residential complex met with criticism from traditional documentary photographers, but Ishiuchi nevertheless earned the prestigious 4th Kimura Ihei Memorial Photography Award in 1979 for her book Apartment.

1·9·4·7 #61 (1988/1989) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum


1947 is the year of Ishiuchi’s birth, and it doubles as the title of a series that features other women born that same year. She conceived of the project 1·9·4·7  upon celebrating her 40th birthday, an occasion that prompted her to contemplate how time and experience visibly registered on her body. 

To further explore this topic, she approached friends born in 1947 and asked to photograph them—specifically their hands and feet, as well as their faces. As news of the project spread through word of mouth, Ishiuchi expanded the series to include women she did not know.

1·9·4·7 #29 (1988/1989) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Ishiuchi omitted facial portraits from the series to enhance the anonymity of the women, focusing instead on extremities that are exposed to the world but often overlooked. In intimate, close-up views, she draws attention to calluses, hangnails, cracked skin, wrinkles, and other visible imperfections.

1·9·4·7 #15 (1988/1989) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

When she published 1·9·4·7, Ishiuchi included information about each sitter’s professional occupation in the captions. Though the women remain unidentified, their body parts, photographed with great sensitivity, appear very distinct.

Scars #45 (Illness 1955) (2000) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum


Ishiuchi began the series Scars in 1991, after she noticed old wounds on some of the men she portrayed for a project called Chromosome XY. Since then, she has continued to photograph visible scarring on the skin of friends, family members, and acquaintances.

For this project, Ishiuchi never identifies her sitters by name, but instead refers to the cause of each scar—such as “accident” or “illness”—when titling the photographs.

Scars #46 (War 1945) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In her book Scars (2005), Ishiuchi explained her philosophical approach toward this subject: “Scars themselves carry a story. Stories of how each person was very sad, or very hurt, and it is because the memory remained in the form of the scar that the story can be narrated in words.” 

As reminders of past trauma and pain, scars are memories inscribed onto the body. However, rather than view scars as blemishes or manifestations of injury, Ishiuchi perceives them as battle wounds. They become symbols of victory over possible defeat. 

Body and Air #11 (August 4, 1947 - March 7, 1999) (1999) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum


To photograph each model who appears in her series Scars, Ishiuchi often uses both color and black-and-white film. Her earliest experiments with color imagery for Scars informed her next series, Body and Air, which presents the bodies of sitters in fragments. 

To generate this series, Ishiuchi utilized a Polaroid SX-70 camera that she purchased in the 1990s. Though she prefers to process and print her film in her own darkroom, she became fascinated with the idea that Polaroid film cameras function like portable darkrooms, able to develop and deliver pictures without physical labor on her part.

Body and Air #15 (July 20, 1947 - May 15, 1999) (1999) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Perhaps due to the more playful interaction between photographer and sitter that the Polaroid camera can facilitate, Ishiuchi’s camera-shy mother agreed to let her daughter take her picture for the first time in the context of the series Body and Air

This brief collaboration laid the foundation for Ishiuchi’s next major series, Mother’s.

Mother's 25 Mar 1916 #31 (2000) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum


Following the death of her father in 1995, Ishiuchi began to strengthen her relationship with her mother, ultimately utilizing photography to forge a deeper bond. Though reluctant to be photographed, Ishiuchi’s mother eventually modeled and allowed her daughter to take pictures of her face and skin, including parts of the body disfigured by a severe scald sustained in 1955.

Mother's #49 (2002) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Ishiuchi’s mother died in 2000, about one year after Ishiuchi began photographing her. Unsure if she should keep or dispose of her mother’s personal effects, Ishiuchi decided to photograph them. She taped worn chemises and girdles to the sliding glass door in her parents’ home, allowing the sun to backlight the undergarments when photographed. 

Mother's #35 (2002) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Old shoes, dentures, used lipstick cases, tattered gloves, and other accessories owned by her mother also feature as subjects. Combining these images with the pictures of her mother made before she died, Ishiuchi generated a somber, gentle portrait with this series.

Mother's #5 by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

When exhibiting this work at the Venice Biennale in 2005, Ishiuchi realized that sharing these intimate views of her mother’s life resonated with many visitors, thus transforming the work from a private expression of sorrow into a powerful, universal eulogy.

ひろしま/hiroshima #9 (Ogawa Ritsu) (2007) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum


Ishiuchi first traveled to Hiroshima in 2007 after accepting a commission to create a new project that addressed the 1945 atomic bombing of that city. After her visit, Ishiuchi chose to photograph artifacts housed at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Aware that these objects had been photographed by other artists, she nevertheless believed that her representation of them could offer a more feminine perspective on war and its aftermath. 

The title of this series, ひろしま/hiroshima, includes the word Hiroshima written in Hiragana, a Japanese writing system that translates as “woman’s hand” and was historically employed by women. Images in this series typically feature objects once owned by women, primarily garments that had been in direct contact with their bodies at the time of the bombing.

ひろしま/hiroshima #69 (Abe Hatsuko) (2007) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Ishiuchi, who sometimes speaks to the objects that appear in her pictures, initially used a light box to illuminate fabrics while photographing them. This method allowed her to conjure the ghostlike auras of the victims—which Ishiuchi attempts to reinforce by “floating” the photographs on walls when she installs them—and allude to the “artificial sun” of the bomb.

But the effects of irradiation—visible in the holes, stains, and frayed edges—are offset by the fashionable textiles, vibrant colors, and intricate, hand-stitched details. 

ひろしま/hiroshima #88 (Okimoto Shigeo) (2010) by Ishiuchi MiyakoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

When titling work from this series, Ishiuchi included the names of individuals who donated each article to the Peace Memorial Museum, breathing life into the objects and the stories they tell us through these photographs.

Ishiuchi has made a significant impact on the photography community, and her work continues to encourage women to pursue photography as a career. Nagashima Yurie, Narahashi Asako and Sawada Tomoko share how Ishiuchi has inspired them and shaped the field of photography in their native Japan.

Otouto (Younger brother) © Yurie Nagashima (2008) by Yurie NagashimaThe J. Paul Getty Museum


"To me, Miyako is not just a great photographer, but also a feminist friend who has encouraged and supported younger female photographers in Japan to believe in what we do and move the needle forward."

Nagashima Yurie

Kawaguchiko © Asako Narahashi (2003) by Asako NarahashiThe J. Paul Getty Museum


"Ishiuchi was the first person to create a wave of women in the male-dominated Japanese photography world. We [women photographers] must continue to fight in it."

Narahashi Asako

OMIAI♡ © Tomoko Sawada (2001) by Tomoko SawadaThe J. Paul Getty Museum


"She has captured the time, history and experience of every subject with love. I was encouraged by the love she has given me, and have learned a lot from her. I respect and am grateful for her."

Sawada Tomoko

Credits: Story

© 2021 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

These photographs appear on Google Arts & Culture thanks to artists Ishiuchi Miyako, Nagashima Yurie, Narahashi Asako and Sawada Tomoko. We also wish to thank The Estate of Jun Miki and Aya Tomoka of The Third Gallery Aya for their kind assistance. 

Much of the material featured here was drawn from in-gallery text that was first published in 2015 and presented in the context of the exhibition Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows, October 6, 2015–February 21, 2016, at the Getty Center. 

For more on Ishiuchi Miyako, see the following resources:
Works by Ishiuchi Miyako in Getty Museum's collection
Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows Catalogue in Getty’s Store
Inside the Photography of Ishiuchi Miyako on the Getty Iris
Ishiuchi Miyako in Conversation

Ishiuchi Miyako, Apartment, Tokyo: Shashin Tsūshinsha, 1978.
Ishiuchi Miyako, Monochrome, Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 1993, 62.
Ishiuchi Miyako, Yokosuka Story, Tokyo: Shashin Tsūshinsha, 1979.
Ishiuchi Miyako, Scars, Tokyo: Sokyū-sha, 2005.

Other resources:
Works by Narahashi Asako in Getty Museum's collection
Works by Sawada Tomoko in Getty Museum's collection

To cite these texts, please use: "Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows" published online in 2021 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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