The ghostly image of a translucent and decaying girl’s dress, frozen in time, unsettles you. The dress, floaty and sepia-toned is all that is left of a childhood innocence, yet half of its peter pan collar and sleeves are missing: the visible and harrowing scars of Hiroshima.
Japanese photographer Ishiuchi Miyako captures some of the horror of the 1945 atomic bomb in her major exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, by photographing the tattered garments that were worn by the victims. The haunting clothes, photographed against bright light, illuminates the loosening thread which holds memory, mortality, suffering and the passage of time, together.
The focus is on the intricate details. In the centre of a wall, the lapels of a blue jacket in one photo stand out. Each criss-cross of the woven material, each stitch, each bleach mark, fading pocket and burn commemorates its former owner, who did not last. A baby’s tiny booties are trapped in time, and a molten watch with its ashed strap burn against an azure blue background.
Miyako masters symbolism and juxtaposes these deathly traces with tenderness. The photos evoke compassion, leaving you questioning who wore these garments. What were their names? And most poignant is a photo of a single blue leather glove, standing on its own.
The vivid ghostliness depicted in the photos is both potent and ethereal. The trauma of war is brought out, and reminds me of the interesting debate on history and memory raised by French Academic Pierre Nora. He argues in his thesis Les Lieux de Mémoire that we try and create sites of memory – trying to immortalise what has passed – when we can no longer live the memory, and when we become conscious of our break from the past.
Miyako acknowledges this and uses her camera to mark this pivotal moment in Japan’s history, and she has said, “Both the scars and the photograph are the manifestation of sorrow for the many things which cannot be retrieved and for the love of life as a remembered present.” This exhibition is a must-see for the technique behind the photos, for the way complex themes such as trauma are composed simply yet powerfully, and to remember the forgotten.
By Aisha Gani
Michael Hoppen Gallery, 3 Jubilee Place, London SW3 3TD