Yasuhiro Ishimoto lets his camera do the talking. On the phone he's cordial but hardly forthcoming. His friends say he'll sometimes cover his mouth with his hand while speaking. His subjects often hide behind masks and sunglasses, or they're enveloped in shadows; like them, he maintains a detached, impassive exterior.
Yet if the street can be regarded as theater, Ishimoto may be the ideal audience. His exquisite black-and-white shots included in "The City: Harbor of Humanity"--an exhibit now at the Museum of Contemporary Photography--illustrate Ishimoto's interest in the city as an arena for human and architectural drama.
Born in 1921 to Japanese parents in San Francisco, Ishimoto spent his childhood in Kochi City, Japan, and returned to America in 1939, only to be interned at a Colorado "relocation camp" for Japanese-Americans from 1942 to '44. After the war he studied agriculture, then architecture. While at Northwestern, Ishimoto was given a camera, and in 1948 he gravitated to the Institute of Design, where he spent the next four years photographing Chicago under the tutelage of Harry Callahan. Though Ishimoto moved to Tokyo a few years later (and relinquished his American citizenship in 1969), he's twice returned to capture Chicago on film: a grant from Minolta brought him back from 1958 to '61, and in 1982 he returned on a Canon fellowship.
"Really, I grew up in Chicago," he says when asked about his attachment to the city. He cultivated both an insider's and an outsider's viewâ a rich blend of sympathy for and estrangement from the street life that became his classic subject. One of the prints at the Museum of Contemporary Photography is a haunting, cryptic portrait of a boy wearing an oversize Halloween mask with an old man's sagging features. The boy raises his fists, ready to box; even the Buick behind him seems angry, its grill a row of bared teeth. The rubber face looks oddly Japanese, which unexpectedly gives the image an autobiographical twist, perhaps reminding viewers of Ishimoto's wartime internment, an injustice he never complained about but never forgot.
On its own, the picture suggests the way purely visual assessments can distort character. It might also be a study of childhood fears. But the portrait, just one of many small dramas he witnessed on the city's streets, shows how Ishimoto combined Callahan's elegance with the improvisational street photography of Robert Frank, the Swiss Jew who became the beatnik photographer of a complacent America. Ishimoto reveals even less of his feelings than Frank, while still seeming blunt and vulnerable. He displaces his own emotions onto his subjects or discovers subjects who live out his perceptions, an uncanny feat. "I have sympathy for all people," he explains simply.
Ishimoto's architectural studies show him to be equally attuned to the emotional subtext of the cityscape; his Loop is a place of deep shadows and sudden illumination, of cavernous spaces and solitary figures, of weather as localized as the space of a picture. In one photo twilight flows along the surface of a downtown street like a shallow, fast-moving river while buildings loom up into the darkness like cliff walls; in another, an el train crosses the river below tall buildings cloaked in radiant midday fog.
After a long period of neglect in Chicagoâ Ishimoto is back in the galleries. Last fall the Museum of Contemporary Photography included his work in "When Aaron Met Harry," a show of work by photographers who came of age at the Institute of Design as students of Callahan and Aaron Siskind. At the same time Gallery 312 featured his photos in a related exhibit, "Together Again," and the Museum of Contemporary Art included Ishimoto in "Art in Chicago: 1945-1995." Next spring the Art Institute will exhibit his photos of Japan's sacred Ise shrine. His crowning honor will be a major retrospective at the Art Institute, which already maintains a sizable collection of his work; scheduled for 1999, the exhibit will commemorate a donation of prints Ishimoto is making to the museum. Though his attachment to Chicago has been sporadic, Ishimoto remembers the late 50s, his most creative period here, as "a beautiful time." His work proves it.
Eleven of Ishimoto's photos of Chicago can be seen through August 2 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan; call 312-663-5554.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos from Yasuhiro Ishimoto's "Chicago Chicago" series, 1960.