Then and Now: Japanese Women Photographers of the 1970s and ’80s Revealed Through Their Photobooks
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This paper uses Asian naming conventions: that is, last name preceding first name. Yoko Ono is the exception, as she is well known in the West by that name. Unless otherwise noted, all translations of Japanese texts are by Tomomitsu Megumi.
In March 2014, the Hasselblad Foundation presented the Japanese photographer Ishiuchi Miyako with its annual award. Ishiuchi, who has spent more than thirty-five years pursuing a photographic vision that explores time and surface filtered through memory, is among only a handful of recognized female photographers from Japan’s postwar scene of the late 1960s through the ’80s. Historical documentation of this period provides limited insight into other female photographers active during this era of great experimentation in the medium, when a new and distinctly Japanese photographic idea emerged in direct response to the political and social constraints that dominated postwar Japan in the shadow of the atomic-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
During the 1970s, the United States discovered postwar Japanese photography through several survey exhibitions curated by the Japanese historian Yamagishi Shoji: first at the Museum of Modern Art, in collaboration with John Szarkowski, 1974; and then in 1979 at the International Center of Photography (ICP) under the auspices of Cornell Capa. In 1977 the Württembergischer Kunstverein, in Stuttgart also contributed to the West’s understanding of this period with its exhibition Neue Fotografie aus Japan. Surprisingly, only the ICP show included a female photographer – Ishiuchi Miyako. Despite their almost total exclusion in the major survey shows in the West of 1970s and ’80s Japanese photography, there were several very active and talented female photographers in addition to Ishiuchi. A few were students or assistants of well-known male photographers such as Moriyama Daido, Araki Nobuyoshi, and Tomatsu Shomei. And as was and still is the custom in the Japanese photographic community, these women presented their work principally in the format of photobooks.
Originally published as inexpensive and accessible editions, usually self-published, these photobooks are unfortunately now quite rare and beyond the budget of the average buyer. However, over the last few years a growing interest in Japanese photobooks from the 1960s to the ’80s has fueled an explosion in reprints, re-editions and reinterpretations of many difficult-to-find Japanese photobooks of the postwar period. Given the current high cost of the original releases, these reissues have become the primary means for a larger audience to become acquainted with early photobook experiments by Japanese photographers. This surge in reprints led to a reintroduction to many of the important photobooks by Japanese women photographers along with a reevaluation of their role in and contributions to the postwar history of Japanese photography. This paper will look closely at the careers of Ishiuchi Miyako, Ishikawa Mao, and Nishimura Tamiko – three Japanese women photographers who came into the Japanese photography scene in the 1970s and ’80s – and their recent recognition in light of the re-edits, reprints and reinterpretations of their early and influential photobooks.
Among Japanese photographers, there is historical precedent for an ongoing reinterpretation and reprinting of existent imagery, with the results acting as either a page-by-page facsimile or an opportunity to engage in an inventive redesign or re-sequencing of earlier images. In the case of Ishiuchi, who represented Japan in the 2005 Venice Biennale and had a 2015 retrospective at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, these reinterpretations provide a means to observe the origins of visual themes that continue to permeate her work. For Ishikawa and Nishimura, the later photobook reinterpretations and facsimiles are an introduction to an audience beyond a very small “in-the-know” Japanese and Western public.
Ishiuchi is the rare Japanese woman photographer who has enjoyed sustained visibility in both the West and Japan. Over her career, there have been periodic solo and group exhibitions in the West of images from her 1976–80 Yokosuka trilogy, a series documented in three photobooks: Apartment (1978), Yokosuka Story (1979), and Endless Night (1981). Her strong iconoclastic voice — shaped by her coming of age during the political and social upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s and by her perseverance as she navigated the prevalent “boys’ club” mentality of postwar male photographers — is the rare tale of success. There were few female artist role models in Japan, and those of the older generation who were the exceptions, such as Yoko Ono and Kusama Yayoi, had the means to travel abroad, where they found increased opportunities and support for their art. As Ishiuchi notes, “There were a lot of women who wanted to do something in photography, and one after another, I saw their efforts come to nothing.” To varying degrees, her early experiences and determination to stay the course are shared by Ishikawa and Nishimura. As the “elder stateswoman,” she warrants a closer look; her experiences offer insight into the cultural context in which all three women struggled to make their early creative voices heard and to publish their work in book format.
As she was born in 1947, in the wake of her country’s World War II surrender, Ishiuchi’s childhood and early works are deeply influenced by the psychic and political fallout in postwar Japan. Raised in Yokosuka, a port city on the southwest edge of Tokyo Bay and home to a substantial US naval presence — a daily reminder of Japan’s continued postwar occupation by the American military — Ishiuchi hated her hometown and “couldn’t wait to get out of there.” Yet Yokosuka looms large in Ishiuchi’s early work, and her images of fortified military-base buildings, streets, and social clubs act as a container for the passage of time. Ishiuchi’s highly personal memories of place also trace a wider conflicted national sentiment associated with the American military presence in Japan.
Ishiuchi never intended to be a photographer. Rather, she began her art studies at Tama Art University, in Tokyo, as a design major, later switching to a weaving concentration in the textile department. This was in the late 1960s and early 1970s when, as in the United States and Europe, radical student protests and feminist activities consumed many Japanese university campuses. Ishiuchi became sympathetic to the New Left student movement Zengaku Kyoto Kaigi (All-Campus-Joint Struggle League), supporting and occasionally joining its fight to reform corrupt university policies and to question the actions of the Japanese government’s class-based economic policies connected with the Anpo Treaty. She also briefly participated in a radical feminist uman ribu (woman’s liberation) group called Shiso Shudan Esuiekusu (Thought Group S-E-X) that sought the liberation of sex and a dissolution of Japanese society’s deeply rooted gender inequality. Shortly thereafter, she withdrew from university and for the next five years worked odd jobs, including helping at her father’s accounting company (where she would continue to be employed until 1995).
These seemingly directionless years, combined with Ishiuchi’s social and political awakening at university, ultimately planted the seeds for a distinctive form of protest and self-expression that would coalesce in 1975, when she received a gift of a camera.
A self-taught photographer, Ishiuchi approached the darkroom from a tactile perspective, more akin to her training in textile dying and weaving — paper and chemicals were tools to be physically manipulated. She began to regularly attend exhibitions and travel in search of a meaningful subject that would reflect not only what she saw, but also what she felt. After a few failed attempts, she realized that her subject lay in Yokosuka, the site of haunting childhood memories colored by her strong feelings of disgust for the American military that overshadowed much of her childhood dailiness.
Shortly after revisiting Yokosuka for the first time with her camera, Ishiuchi participated in two group shows, in 1975 and 1976, organized by Shashin Koka (Photography Effect). (These public presentations of her work marked the first time she used her mother’s maiden name, Ishiuchi Miyako, rather than her given name, Fujikura Yoko.) Among her submissions were photographs taken near her new home in Yokohama and several recent images of Yokosuka. Grainy, dark, and quietly unsettling, these images are indicative of a tactility and aesthetic sensibility that would find its full voice a year later in her first solo show.
The response to Ishiuchi’s works in the Shashin Koka shows was quite strong. Present were several of the prominent male photographers of the Provoke era, such as Tomatsu Shomei, Kuwabara Kineo, Araki, and Fukase Masahisa. Ishiuchi recalls: “Araki said, ‘If you want to show at Nikon Salon [the most famous gallery of the time], bring some photos over.’ I wasn’t really clear to whom he was talking. But when I heard that, I spoke up and said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it, though only once.’”
Despite her uncertainty about whether to continue to pursue photography and with nothing to lose, Ishiuchi brought a stack of photos to the Nikon Salon. She was already establishing a name for herself in the photographic community, and asserting her voice through her collaboration in the groundbreaking feminist Hyakka Ryoran (Riot of Flowers, 1976) ten-woman group exhibition whose aim was to affirm independent roles for women. Ishiuchi showed Araki and Miki Jun, who was then the director of the Nikon Salon, more than a hundred 12x10 inch prints that she had shot in Yokosuka. Still new to the darkroom, her prints had a raw but decidedly feminine physicality, best described by the Japanese word jimi, which translates as “flavor of the earth.” Impressed, Miki offered Ishiuchi a solo show in 1977 and advised her to rename the series from its working title of Yokosuka Elegy to Yokosuka Story.
Although Yokosuka Story was Ishiuchi’s first photographic series, it was her second photobook. Joining forces with Yada Taku, her university colleague whose images were also on display in the Shashin Koka shows, Ishiuchi created a publishing company called Shashin Tsushinsha and self-financed the publication of both Yokosuka Story (1979) and Apartment (1978), her first book and the subject of her second solo exhibition at Nikon Salon. Both books, along with Endless Night (1981), the third book in the Yokosuka trilogy, published by the established Asahi Sonoroma imprint (but financed mainly by Ishiuchi, her father, and Yada), are noted for their high production value and attention to detail. Ishiuchi selected all the photographs and took the lead in the image sequencing; Yada served as the books’ editor and head of production, overseeing design by Kimura Tsunehisa and the selection of texts on Ishiuchi by well-known photographers.
Initially, Yokosuka Story was to be published at the same time as Apartment, but it came out the following year. There are many similarities between the two books (both are softcover editions with the same dimensions), but each has a very distinct vision in terms of content and design. Whereas Yokosuka Story uses full-bleed images to document Ishiuchi’s return to the ghosts of her hometown streets, white borders frame the photographs in Apartment, a body of work that looks at both the exterior and the interior crumbling spaces of early-postwar communal apartments found in Tokyo and other Japanese cities — spaces whose stained walls and earthen floors are reminiscent of the single room Ishiuchi’s family occupied when they first moved to Yokosuka, in 1954. Apartment presents a bittersweet view of a vanishing lifestyle as seen in images that include a young girl whose head is framed by a pockmarked and graffiti-scarred wall, crowded cubbies overflowing with bathroom slippers, and a dark corridor lined with curtains that attempt to provide a modicum of privacy. Rather than capture this fading world as a strict documentarian, Ishiuchi elects to shift and recalculate truths. As Tomatsu writes on the book’s bellyband, “Look! The new chromosome sequence / Grains are a language / It is outrageously hot and dark / The photograph / Announces to us whatever nothingness there is / Outside of the photograph.”
The third book, Endless Night (1981), evolved as Ishiuchi was working on the Apartment series. She became aware that some of the buildings she was photographing were brothels that had been converted into residences. As she writes in its introduction, “The camera is a tool for me to capture a sort of reminiscent moment. This is how I worked on Yokosuka Story and Apartment. I started Endless Night in the same manner. While I was wandering around the Aka-sen (red-light districts), I found myself having another sense of feeling.” Photographing time to fix and capture its accumulation and flow is the essence conveyed in the near-empty interiors that are filled with the ghosts of an undeniable human presence. The stark black-and-white images in Endless Night show the now-defunct hostess bars that filled the back alleys of Japanese cities. By taking her camera indoors, Ishiuchi reveals the empty hallways, decrepit stairwells, and shabby, decaying public spaces of these pleasure palaces. Imbued with melancholy, Ishiuchi’s photos take on a highly personal political voice as they speak to a sense of loss, both private and public.
As a self-publisher, Ishiuchi actively visited and delivered all three Yokosuka trilogy books to stores in Tokyo. The response to the trilogy was strong, but with most of the texts in Japanese, the books were sold exclusively in Japan. Her books received support from her Japanese male peers, but not without a sexist undercurrent. Araki, who wrote the Japanese-only afterword for Yokosuka Story, a book that also had two essays in English, spends much of his text talking about how “hot” Ishiuchi is in her black T-shirt and jeans. Araki’s acknowledgment of her photographic talents is conveyed as indirect quotes from other male photographers. As Ishiuchi says, “I had no mentors or teachers in my career since I never [formally] studied photography. . . . Thanks to good luck, I could hang out with the best photographers of Japan such as Moriyama, Araki, and Tomatsu, but it is easy to stereotype and assume that since I am a woman, I had a mentoring relationship with them.”
For the next twenty-tree years, her early Yokosuka works remained relatively unknown in the West. With the exception of European or American photobook collectors who traveled to Japan or the inclusion of one or two of her early images in the few Western survey exhibitions of Japanese photography, Ishiuchi’s Yokosuka trilogy images were difficult to experience outside of Japan. However, the tide began to change in 2004 with A History of Japanese Photography, a major survey exhibition curated by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Among the many rarely seen photographs that covered the hundred-forty-year history of Japanese photography were several Ishiuchi prints.
A Western desire to learn more about Ishiuchi’s earlier works grew, and with her original Yokosuka trilogy quite scarce by this point, the only access to these images was through the several less-expensive Japanese reinterpretations and reprints that began appearing in the late 1990s. Ota Michitaka, of Sokyu Sha in Tokyo, the renowned publisher of Fukase’s Karasu / Ravens (1986), worked with Ishiuchi to put together Yokosuka Again: 1980–1990 in 1998. The book relates to the From Yokosuka exhibition that Ishiuchi mounted in 1980 in an abandoned cabaret on Dobuita Dori (Gutter Alley), a street in the seedy American G.I. entertainment district of Yokosuka that Ishiuchi had avoided as a child and omitted in the final edit of the earlier Yokosuka Story. Both the exhibition and photobook combine Ishiuchi’s Yokosuka Story images with newer, large-scale prints that focus on Dobuita Dori and the surrounding Honcho district, the primary playground for the American military.
Ota, who had first met Ishiuchi in 1988 during her exhibition From Yokosuka Third Position at Moriyama Daido’s Tokyo gallery, called Room 801, offered to publish a book with her at the time. In the ten years that followed the From Yokosuka exhibition, Ishiuchi intermittently photographed in Yokosuka, expanding on her original series. In 1997, nine years after she first met Ota, Ishiuchi called the publisher and asked, “Do you remember what you said? I am going to have a show next year. Can you publish a photobook for me?” Yokosuka Again: 1980–1990 was a softcover bilingual edition (English/Japanese) edited jointly by Ota and Ishiuchi and designed by Kimura, the same designer for the original Yokosuka trilogy. The intended audience was international, and Ota reports that in recent years, sales for his books by Ishiuchi are equal in Japan and in the West.
Ota followed Yokosuka Again: 1980–1990 with several other books by Ishiuchi, such as the 2007 Clubs & Courts Yokosuka Yokohama, which continued her exploration of derelict and abandoned G.I. entertainment clubs. In addition, Wides Shuppan released Endless Night 2001, a re-envisioning of the third book in the trilogy. All of these books were published with bilingual texts. Ota confirms that the intention was to enable accessibility in price and to foster sales beyond the Japanese market. It was also a response to the scarcity of the original Yokosuka trilogy books, which in the early 2000s began resurfacing with high price tags in antiquarian bookshops. This scarcity was further fueled in 2004 by the first volume of Gerry Badger and Martin Parr’s The Photobook: A History, a comprehensive illustrated overview that contained an entry on Ishiuchi’s Yokosuka Story with mention of the other two books in the trilogy. As a result, already-limited Western access to the Yokosuka trilogy images became even more limited until 2008, when Machiel Botman, a Dutch photographer who has long supported postwar Japanese photography, curated Miyako Ishiuchi Photographs 1976–2006, a retrospective exhibition that began at the Langshans Gallery, in Prague, and traveled to venues in Amsterdam, London, and Mulhouse, France. The accompanying leporello-format catalogue provides an outline of her work with a focus on the three distinct series that comprise the Yokosuka trilogy.
“Japanese photographers see bodies of work in book form very naturally from the inception [of a photographic idea],” says Andrew Roth, a New York gallerist and the publisher of PPP Editions, who had in mind during his first meeting with Ishiuchi to publish a book of her work. He was introduced to her through Sandra Phillips, the San Francisco MoMA curator who began concentrating on postwar Japanese photography in the early 2000s. Traveling to Japan in 2007, just as the Sokyu Sha Clubs & Courts Yokosuka Yokohama book was released, Roth met Ishiuchi in her Yokohama studio and began planning an exhibition for New York that would combine the Clubs & Court images with the vintage Apartment series. As Roth recalls, “I was plotting to segue that into another exhibit, which did happen a number of years later and blended Apartment, Yokosuka Story, and Endless Night together.”
In 2010, Roth mounted that exhibition and realized a PPP Editions re-edit of the Yokosuka trilogy along with several previously unpublished Yokosuka images into a new volume entitled Sweet Home Yokosuka, 1976–1980 (2010). Aimed at both a Western and a Japanese audience, the bilingual publication, which has a thumbnail index to identify all the works by their original series, does not include the provocative Araki text from Yokosuka Story or any of the other original texts by Japanese male photographer contributors. Rather, Linda Hoaglund helped secure a new essay by the renowned female film director Nishikawa Miwa. Despite being published in a limited edition of a thousand copies, the book was initially priced at $85 and was relatively accessible to a diverse audience in both the West and Japan —making possible a wider public to learn about Ishiuchi’s early Yokosuka works.
“More people have the Sweet Home Yokosuka and know her work through that than through the original books because they are too expensive now,” says Roth. With this increased access through less expensive early photobook reinterpretations, in tandem with her 2015 Getty retrospective, the West is finally becoming aware of Ishiuchi’s critical role in early 1970s Japanese photo history. As Roth writes, “She was always left out for the simple reason that she was a woman and photography is dominated by men.”
The political and social upheaval of the early 1970s was a fertile period for quite a few other Japanese women photographers, many of whom still remain relatively unknown in the West. Ishikawa Mao, born in 1953, is an outspoken female photographer whose images are fueled by the distinctive political climate of her native Okinawa and the American military installations that populate the island. As a contentious yet mandated component of Japan’s postwar political and economic landscape, their presence is not a simple picture of occupier and occupied, but rather a controversial and complex issue.
Ishikawa is a photographer who “lives at the polar opposite of the illusion of objectivity,” writes Tomatsu Shomei. “She views the whole world by becoming a totally committed part of it.” Discovering photography at sixteen years old through a school photography club, Ishikawa emerged as a photographer in the early 1970s, a period of intense protests that focused on the Anpo Treaty renewal and the Vietnam War. She was tempted to give up photography, but witnessed a demonstration in which an Okinawan policeman was hit with a bottle filled with gasoline. As she recalls, “The policeman just lay down and died, I ran away crying. I ran and ran. Then I stopped to vomit at the side of the road. ‘Why do Okinawans fight Okinawans?’ I thought. ‘What can I do to teach Okinawans this history?’ That’s when I decided to become a photographer.”
Like Ishiuchi, who asked her family to reallocate money set aside for a future wedding toward the production of her photobooks, Ishikawa refused her mother’s offer of an expensive coming-of-age kimono and instead asked to use the funds to study under Tomatsu at his Workshop School of Photography, in Tokyo, in 1974. Her three months at the school initiated a lifelong relationship with Tomatsu, a frequent visitor to Okinawa.
It was on her return to Okinawa that Ishikawa’s bold voice as a photographer emerged. She chose to center her work on her home island, her neighbors, and the American military who overshadowed much of Okinawan life. She became fascinated with the soldiers and their interactions with local women in the bars that filled the entertainment districts of Kin and Koza. As someone who can’t separate herself from her photographs and fully embraces and engages with her subject, Ishikawa sought employment in a Kin-Town bar catering to African American servicemen from Camp Hansen. The black-and-white images she created from 1976 to 1977, during her time as a Kin-Town hostess, are “up front and personal”’ and cast light on a community often looked down on by her fellow Okinawans.
“The women who worked in the bars came to Kin because of some tough life situations,” she writes. “[From them] I learned how wonderful [it is] to live freely and defiantly.” Deeply engaged with the lives of the young Japanese women and African American soldiers who frequented the bars, Ishikawa’s photographs from this time are explicit and raw as they document the social interactions of two marginalized groups, and offer intimate views of sex and play interwoven with images of biracial children and group portraits.
In 1977, Ishikawa showed her images with Tomatsu, who along with Araki recommended her work for an exhibition at the Minolta Photo Space in Tokyo. Ishikawa writes: “Women of Kin [the resulting show] . . . met with much astonishment and praise, because a barmaid for a black soldiers’ bar, that is me, took photos of her colleagues.” Ishikawa won Best Work for the 1977 Minolta Amateur Photography Award. She was a bit bewildered by this attention as she was most definitely an outsider who was unknown in Japanese photographic circles.
Five years later, in 1982, in collaboration with the photographer Higa Toyomitsu, who contributed photographs and oversaw the editorial format, Ishikawa published Atsuki Hibi in Kyampu Hansen (Hot Days in Camp Hansen). The photobook, which includes texts by Ishikawa, Higa, Tomatsu, Araki, and Tokuda Yoko (a radio director from Ryukyu Broadcasting), presents an unfiltered view from an interior perspective. Araki’s contribution again sets a sensational tone, with the title “Body Heat: Never Ending Hot Days of Love.”
Hot Days in Camp Hansen was the first project to evolve from a group of photographer friends who joined forces to pool resources with the goal of creating several publications. With no bookstore distribution, Ishikawa sold the book independently, sending out the first two hundred copies through a photo magazine’s mail-order operation. Among the photographs in Hot Days in Camp Hansen were two of Ishikawa’s friends who were not working at the bar but also interacted with the black soldiers. On publication, these women requested that their images be removed, explaining that the photos of them with soldiers would damage their family lives. After negotiations with the women and all members of the publishing collective, Ishikawa agreed to redact their images from the remaining books and to give them all of the negatives from her two years in Kin — even though they had requested only the negatives of images in which they appeared.
The Hot Days in Camp Hansen photobook from that moment onward became unavailable, but Ishikawa continued to work on other series related to the Kin-Town images. Life in Philly (2010), published by Zen Foto Gallery and Gallery Out of Place, both in Tokyo, evolved from a visit Ishikawa took in 1986 to Philadelphia to visit Myron Carr, one of the black servicemen she had befriended in the Kin-Town bars. Carr had returned to the United States in 1977 and was living in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood. What she photographed in Carr’s predominately African American community were the derelict street corners, abandoned buildings, drug dealers, and intimate lives of his friends and neighbors. As with her earlier images, Ishikawa did not shy away from using her camera as a means to extract the exceedingly personal and raw aspects of her subjects: Her strength as a photographer is to reveal unflinchingly the most honest portraits possible.
Despite exhibiting copied pages from her Hot Days in Camp Hansen book in a group show on Okinawa at the PS1 Contemporary Art Center in New York in 2004, it was the later Life in Philly photobook — a bilingual publication, with an English translation of the original Tomatsu essay from Hot Days in Camp Hansen — that brought Ishikawa’s early work to the attention of Western viewers. Mark Pearson, the British owner of Zen Foto Gallery, remembers how he was introduced to Ishikawa’s work: “My friend Nomura Yoshinori of Gallery Out of Place showed her work Life in Philly in Nara and he showed me the prints on a visit I made there quite some years back. I wasn’t familiar with her [Hot Days in Camp Hansen] work in those days.” Pearson co-published Life in Philly with Gallery Out of Place before formally opening his own gallery, but shortly after the book’s release he secured a space and mounted an Ishikawa exhibition that presented photographs from both Hot Days in Camp Hansen and Life in Philly.
Unfortunately, the only book available at the time of the Zen Foto exhibition was Life in Philly; Hot Days in Camp Hansen had long been an extremely rare and out-of-print volume. However, in 2012 Ishikawa’s daughter found a box of photographs with hundreds of unpublished images from her mother’s Kin-Town days that her late grandfather had kept in a storage room. With that discovery, Ishikawa was able to publish the bilingual Hot Days in Okinawa with the Japanese imprint Foil in 2013. Shot during the period of the Camp Hansen images, Hot Days in Okinawa evokes the same defiant and honest voice that was introduced in the earlier publication. Since then, Western interest in Ishikawa’s earlier photographs has been steadily gaining momentum.
The Paris-based writer and independent curator Marc Feustel explains that he first learned about Ishikawa’s work through Mark Pearson and then sought to share it with others: “After meeting Mao on two occasions in Okinawa, I agreed to try and promote her work in Europe. I focused my efforts on bringing her book Hot Days in Camp Hansen to the attention of collectors and magazines. Very few people knew about the book. I showed the project to Martin Parr and Gerry Badger just as they were beginning to work on The Photobook: Volume III. They were both fascinated, not only by the book but by its back story.” Badger and Parr ultimately included Hot Days in Camp Hansen in their publication, encouraging others to further seek out her work. Because the original Camp Hansen book is difficult to find and expensive, it is only through the Hot Days in Okinawa 2013 reinterpretation by Foil Publications that people have come to know her early work, from 1976 to ’77.
The same lack of sustained recognition and more recent discovery, which Ishikawa experienced with the reinterpretation of her important earlier Hot Days in Camp Hansen, can also be seen in the career trajectory of Nishimura Tamiko, a photographer of great sensitivity and depth. Born in 1948, Nishimura studied at the Tokyo Photography College in the late 1960s. Less influenced by an overt political and social agenda, Nishimura’s images are nonetheless a record of the freedoms afforded young Japanese women in the wake of older traditions giving way to a modern Japan. On her graduation, in 1969, Nishimura was working part time in the offices of Taki Koji, a writer and photographer who was a founding member of Provoke magazine. Her responsibilities included assisting Provoke members Moriyama Daido and Nakahira Takuma with their prints and contact sheets in the magazine’s darkroom. She remembers, “I was able to see very closely how they worked; how Moriyama took his images. I also printed more than one hundred contact sheets for Nakahira’s first book For a Language to Come (1970).” Nishimura was deeply influenced by the raw “are bure boke” (grainy, blurry, and out-of-focus) style she saw in the Provoke images she was tasked to develop. Yet her synthesis of this aesthetic is distinctly her own, and filtered through a subtler perspective that is more concerned with the social changes in Japan than with a direct political commentary.
In the early 1970s, the Japan National Railways launched “Discover Japan,” an advertising campaign targeting solo travelers and women. Nishimura was among the many young women who were enticed by these advertisements. From 1969 to 1972, she was working odd jobs and magazine assignments to amass the money and flexibility to take solo trips whenever work was slow. Traveling mostly by train and bus, she took photographs — many depicting women — that are purposefully unplanned, the result of chance encounters with people and places. Whether a grainy landscape in the early 1970s with a young girl riding her bicycle or the blurred image of a couple bathing on an almost moonlike terrain, Nishimura’s high-contrast images feel like stolen intimate moments. Their lack of artifice and imprecise compositions convey freedom and spontaneity as they document the fleeting. Quietly evocative records of times and places that in many cases no longer exist, they trace Nishimura’s random encounters with a changing Japanese culture and landscape.
The images from these various road trips around Tohoku, Hokkaido, Kanto, and Kansai are collected in Shikishima (1973), which was published and financed by her alma mater, the Tokyo Photography College. The book was part of a short-lived series released by the college to showcase recent graduates, and Nishimura was responsible for Shikishima‘s production: image selection, sequencing, Japanese-only text, and print production. Mark Pearson, who would publish in 2014 a facsimile edition of the now-rare book, talks about his impression on first seeing the original: “[It] was particularly fascinating to see Nishimura’s work as a rare counterpoint to the male photographers of the period.” Rather than the late-night after-hours club and bar-patron portraits that are the mainstay of many Japanese male photographers of the period, Shikishima is more akin to Fukase’s Karasu / Ravens (1986). It is a sensitive book comprising poetic images captured by a young woman traveling alone in her native Japan.
At the time of publication, only a thousand copies of the book were printed. Nishimura actively showed the book and prints to several magazine photography editors, but for the most part Shikishima was not shown outside of Japan until thirty-five later. Despite the well-known Tokyo-based Taka Ishii Gallery’s mounting of a twenty-fifth-anniversary exhibition of the prints in 1998, Nishimura remained unknown in the West. Apart from a few exhibitions in the years between the release of the book and the Taka Ishii show, Nishimura continued to photograph without much public exposure.
However, the Taka Ishii show could be seen as a turning point, although it did take another fourteen years for Shikishima to begin showing up in rare-book shops in the West. In the interim, particularly after 2005, Nishimura began again to exhibit regularly, and published several other books in Japan related to more recent series. In 2012, thirty-nine years after Shikishima was first released, Grafica Press in Tokyo published Eternal Chase, a book that collects photographs that Nishimura took in the 1970s, after the completion of Shikishima. Although both books contain images from the same period, Eternal Chase is distinctive for reflecting a selection made by a photographer looking back on her earlier images. As Nishimura says, “In Shikishima, the images were selected by my younger self, while Eternal Chase includes images that reflect choices made by a mature photographer.” Also in the book are English translations for all the essays and captions. The intent is clearly to present Nishimura’s earlier work to a Western audience.
Similar to Shikishima, Eternal Chase is a road-trip book with images that hold a mirror to a changing Japan caught through chance encounters. Again, women seem to predominate: a snowy Hokkaido landscape with an elderly woman steadying herself on a walkway railing as she climbs an embankment, the blurred cover of a women’s magazine casually laid across a female train passenger’s lap.
In 2014, Shikishima finally became accessible to a broader audience, in both Japan and the West, with the publication of a facsimile edition by Zen Foto Gallery in Tokyo and the original’s inclusion in the third volume of Badger and Parr’s The Photobook: A History. A true replica of the original with the intent to introduce Nishimura’s earliest work, the facsimile incorporates elements such as a slipcase and an English translation of Nishimura’s original Japanese essay accompanied by new text in which Nishimura writes about her earlier photographs and the freedom they gave her. “In those days . . . I took a night train to Tohoku and Hokkaido. I still remember the feeling of lying down on the top bunk bed, and the taste of the bento I ate shortly after dawn, looking out of the train window.” While working on the facsimile, Nishimura shared additional photographs with the publisher, who decided to add a new volume to accompany the original. The entire package, priced at $60, effectively brings a previously neglected Japanese woman photographer to audiences in both Japan and the West.
Although Ishiuchi, Ishikawa, and Nishimura are finally gaining visibility in the West, they are still relatively unknown compared to their Japanese male peers from the 1970s. Mention the name Moriyama Daido or Araki and most people in photography circles nod their heads in recognition. Mention Ishiuchi Miyako and the number of nods decreases. Mention Ishikawa Mao and Nishimura Tamiko and there are only a handful of collectors in the West who have heard of their work, most of whom are in photobook-collecting circles. It is a slow process, but the recognition of the important early works by these women is finally increasing: in part from the bilingual facsimiles, reprints, and reinterpretations that have been released in the past five years by both Western and Japanese publishers.
Why were these women neglected? It is far too simple to say it has been because of sexism and an Orientalist art-historical perspective. As noted above, these women were to some degree supported by their male photography peers within Japan, admittedly in complicated and not always fair ways. The catalogue essays and promotional obi texts in both Ishiuchi and Ishikawa’s early photobooks are by well-known male photographers of the time, who were in charge of galleries and populated award committees. Nishimura tells about coming in contact with Moriyama and Nakahira during her time as an assistant in the Provoke darkroom. Yet none of the three women cite a male or female photographer as a mentor. Instead, they all emphasize that they worked independently in their early years. As Ishiuchi indicates, it is easy to simplify that they are women and must have seen the better-known Provoke-era male photographer as their mentors.
As a result of the 2015 J. Paul Getty Museum’s retrospective Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadow, which was on view in conjunction with The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography, an associated exhibition that highlights five young Japanese women photographers, a rethinking of the critical role that female artists have played in Japan’s photographic history is finally under way.
However, there are still a number of obstacles in the presentation of their works in the museum setting. With the photobook an important means of viewing the early works, exhibition designers and curators are struggling to develop an appropriate structure to show the photographers’ rare and incredibly fragile early books: the occasional open-book spread is finally being supplemented with touch-screen page-turning kiosks and timed projections to reveal an entire book. Yet the need to touch and hold a book as a way to fully connect with a photographer’s visual language is limited within the museum context. Some museums are setting up reading rooms with tables populated by facsimiles, reprints, and reinterpretations; others are stocking the recent books in their bookshops.
Whatever the venue, whether through an online shop, local photography bookstore, photobook fair, or museum reading room, the early images in their original book format are finally reaching a larger public in the West. And with this access, the West is discovering a number of Japanese women photographers whose early voices — nurtured within the political, economic, and social transformations that overtook Japan from the later 1960s through the early 1980s — contribute to an expanded understanding of the diverse visions that shaped postwar Japanese photography.
Russet Lederman teaches art writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York and writes on photobooks for print and online journals, including FOAM, The Eyes, IMA, Aperture and the International Center of Photography’s library blog. She is a co-founder of the 10×10 Photobooks project and co-edits The Gould Collection.
Ishiuchi Miyako, interview with Reiko Kokatsu and Izumi Nakajima, December 20, 2010, Oral History Archives of Japanese Art, http://www.oralarthistory.org/archives /ishiuchi_miyako/interview_01.php.
Ishiuchi quoted in Linda Hoaglund, “ANPO: Art x War—in Havoc’s Wake,” in Asia-Pacific Journal, 9/41, October 10, 2011, http://www.japaninfocus.org/-Linda-Hoaglund/3616.
Jon Mitchell, “Okinawan shutterbug captures varied reactions to Hinomaru,” The Japan Times, November 19, 2011, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2011/11/19/general/okinawa-shutterbug-captures-varied-reactions-to-hinomaru.
Monty DiPietro, “Tamiko Nishimura at the Taka Ishii Gallery,” in Assembly Language, 19 September 1998, http://www.assemblylanguage.com/reviews/Nishimura.html.
- Ishiuchi Miyako. Apartment. Tokyo: Shashin Tsushinsha, 1978.
- ——.Yokosuka Story. Tokyo: Shashin Tsushinsha, 1979.
- ——. Endless Night. Tokyo: Asahi Sonorama, 1981.
- ——. Yokosuka Again 1980–1990. Tokyo: Sokyu Sha, 1998.
- ——. Endless Night 2001. Tokyo: Wides Shuppan, 2001.
- ——. Clubs & Courts Yokosuka Yokohama. Tokyo: Sokyu Sha, 2007.
- ——. Sweet Home Yokosuka 1976–1980. New York: PPP Editions, 2010.
- Botman, Machiel, ed. Miyako Ishiuchi. Prague: Langhans Gallery, 2008.
- Ishikawa Mao and Higa Toyomitsu. Atsuki Hibi in Kyampu Hansen (Hot Days in Camp Hansen). Okinawa: Amman Shuppen, 1982.
- Ishikawa Mao. Life in Philly. Tokyo: Zen Foto Gallery, 2010.
- ——. Hot Days in Okinawa. Kyoto: Foil Co. Ltd, 2013.