mother’s (2002) by miyako ishiuchi

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Photographer Miyako Ishiuchi has a confession to make. She doesn’t like taking pictures. “Shooting at somebody at close range makes me nervous,” she says. It’s a strange statement coming from Ishiuchi, 58: after all, she has been chosen to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale for her memorable images of contemporary Japanese life. “Somehow I feel awkward,” she insists.

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There’s nothing awkward about her work. Her series “mother’s 2000-2005? traces of the future,” on view at the Biennale, features elegant close-ups of her late mother’s personal effects, from undergarments to lipstick. “Her photos are deeply personal and yet hold a universal meaning,” says curator Michiko Kasahara, who as commissioner of the Japan pavilion in Venice, selected the photographer.

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Ishiuchi developed the series after her mother passed away five years ago. Though the two had never gotten along, Ishiuchi was grief stricken. “I couldn’t throw away her things,” she says. Instead, she photographed them, as a way to come to grips with her death — and life. The cosmetics and beautifully laced chemises reveal her mother as a fashion-conscious, sophisticated woman. Independent and strong, she worked as a truckdriver delivering military goods after her husband was drafted and then reported dead in the 1940s. She was pregnant by another man when her husband suddenly reappeared, very much alive. She paid to divorce her husband a week before giving birth to a daughter: Ishiuchi.

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The photographer’s simple, stoically unsentimental pictures are both striking and relevant, and force the viewer to look for stories behind the images. They show “the memory inherent in the postwar Japanese reality,” says Kasahara. Ishiuchi’s early works include dramatic images of street scenes in Yokosuka, a sordid port city that houses a U.S. Navy base and plenty of night life. Most of the photos are unpopulated, but still resonate with the people who once lived there. Ishiuchi says she strives to seize “a point of contact between the past and the present.”

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After Venice, Ishiuchi plans to resume work on her latest series, “Innocence.” On view at Tokyo’s Zeit-Foto Salon gallery through June 18, it presents photos of scars on women’s bodies. If she’s still uncomfortable taking such pictures, she’s fully at home in the darkroom, where, she says, “I search my heart while developing photos.” Preparing “mother’s,” Ishiuchi spent a lot of time wondering why the two of them couldn’t get along. “I probably understand her better now,” she says. That’s what can come from probing one’s heart in the dark.

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