Miyako Ishiuchi

Galerie Langhans

Galerie Langhans, which has mounted the first European retrospective of the photographer Miyako Ishiuchi, who represented Japan in the 2005 Venice Biennale, has an unusual history. The Langhans family was a well-known dynasty of portrait photographers whose customers comprised the great and good of Europe, the King of England among them. After the Communist seizure of power, they were driven into exile. When the family reclaimed their home several years ago, they discovered nearly nine thousand glass-plate negatives hidden away—each one a gem. A small gallery in the house offers carefully selected exhibitions.

Though not large, the Ishiuchi retrospective provides a wonderful insight into three decades of work by this photographer, who studied in Tokyo and still lives there. But the show begins in Yokosuka, the place of her childhood, a city then still marked by American military presence. The emotionally charged images of “Yokosuka Story,” 1976–77, are reminiscent of the postwar photographs of the Magnum Group, but more abstract because of the graininess of their enlargement (perhaps influenced by the earlier work of Shomei Tomatsu) and, despite all their drama, more distanced. The series “Apartment,” 1977–78, was also shot in Yokosuka: photographs of impoverished dwellings, often already abandoned, focusing on the most intimate corners—like the toilets, mute witnesses of human existence. Ishiuchi followed this with “Endless Night,” 1978–80, taken in prostitutes’ apartments. What’s left after all the orgies are desolation, shabbiness, and peeling paint. This series began a turn toward a minimalism in her work. From this point on, Ishiuchi needs less and less to be able to say much.

At forty, Ishiuchi turned her attention to the bodies of women who were born the same year as she, 1947. In the black-and-white, frontal close-ups of “,” 1988–89, she records the hands or the feet of these women—no faces. In particular, the photographer became entranced by feet: “I never thought that it would be so thrilling to discover the beauty, the dignity, and the wonderful charm that feet contained. I felt that the feet, precisely because they stubbornly tread the earth while supporting the rest of the body, were where one’s true character lay hidden.” The body—especially its surface, the skin—is also featured in “1906 to the Skin,” 1991–93. This time the subject is a man, the avant-garde dancer Kazuo Ohno, born in 1906. Fascinated by the silken shimmer of his skin, with its folds and furrows, she felt her way with her camera across his legs, his hips, his back. Black-and-white, almost abstract images lend the emaciated body—marked by age and physical exertion—an incomparable, quiet dignity. Rarely has the body of an old man been shown so unsparingly and, despite its age, so appealingly.

The elderly body is also the subject of “Mother’s,” 2000–2005, in which black-and-white photographs of the photographer’s own aged and dying parent are accompanied by color images of objects from her mother’s everyday belongings: a lipstick, an underskirt, worn shoes, dentures. These are valedictory photographs that fight desperately against evanescence, and they constitute the most powerful work in the show. Transience and decay, recurrent themes in Ishiuchi’s oeuvre, here find an unparalleled existential gravity.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Diana Reese.