Mao Ishikawa was born in 1953 in Ôgimi Village, in the northern part of Okinawa. When shewas born, Okinawa was officially taken from Japanese hands and put under the control of American military forces, a status that remained in effect until her graduation from high school. Ishikawa started her photography career in a workshop guided by the famous Japanese photographer Tômatsu Shômei (b. 1930), in Tokyo in 1973, when she was 20.
A mentorship with Shōmei Tōmatsu (1930–2012)—who also inspired the creation of the influential photography magazine Provoke—preceded Ishikawa’s first series, shot between 1975 and 1977. The photographs are focused on the African-American servicemen who frequented a bar near Camp Hansen, where Ishikawa worked as a bartender, as well as her friends and the other local women who dated them. They are captured at parties, in bedrooms and bathing naked. In 1977, the images were shown at Tokyo’s Minolta Photo Space under the title “Kin-Town Women” and with the support of Tōmatsu and fellow photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. The photos were then included in the photobooks Hot Days in Camp Hansen, published in 1982; Hot Days in Okinawa (2013); and most recently, Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa (2017). The joyful, slightly racy but also humble tone of the series is perhaps best encapsulated by the cover of Hot Days in Okinawa:a mixed group of Okinawan women and African-American men lounge around, drinking and smoking on a small bed illuminated by afternoon light, revealing Ishikawa’s bold level of intimacy with her subjects, which she established early on in her career.
Over her four-decade-long career, Mao Ishikawa has developed a strong Ryukyuan voice. In shedding light on the stories and perspectives of people on the margins—be they women, Okinawans, people of color, or victims of nationalist agendas—she continues to devote herself to producing images of Okinawa rooted in the truth of multiple experiences. Emily Wakeling on ArtAsiaPacific
Her attendance of Shomei Tomatsu’s class at WORKSHOP photography school in the Spring of 1974 seems to have had a strong influence on her style; their close association as friends and teacher/student continued until his death in 2012. Martin Parr identifies her work as ‘post-Provoke’ in The Photobook: A History Volume III (page 90), observing the strength of her photography is charged by its directness and rawness, in contrast to the stylized symbolism preferred by the previous generation of Provoke photographers.
Okinawa has been one of the most popular subjects in the history of Japanese photography, having attracted many renowned Japanese photography masters such as Tomatsu Shomei, Daido Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Keizo Kitajima. Born and raised in Okinawa, Ishikawa is, however, the only female photographer for still vigorously making work of Okinawa (and living in Okinawa) in spite of whatever taboo or challenges she came across along the way. Session Press
Mao Ishikawa: A Port Town Elegy (Zen Foto Gallery, 2015) | Mao Ishikawa: Morika’s Dreams (Mirai-sha Publishers, 2014) | Mao Ishikawa: Red Flower, The Women of Okinawa (Session Press, 2017)