Takeshi Ishikawa in Tucson

Takeshi Ishikawa and me at CCP. Tuesday Nov. 8.

Takeshi Ishikawa and me at CCP. Tuesday Nov. 8.

I spent a couple of days in Tucson this week with Takeshi Ishikawa, who was Gene and Aileen Smith’s assistant for three years in Minamata.  Earlier this year I spent a day with Ishikawa-san in Tokyo and then four moving days in Minamata.  I wrote about the experience for Paris Review Daily, “Letter from Japan,” and my interpreter Momoko Gill talked about Ishikawa-san in an interview I did with her HERE.

We looked at materials in Smith’s archive at CCP that Ishikawa-san hadn’t seen since he helped create them forty years ago.  The story of how Ishikawa met Smith jibes with many other stories I’ve heard about Smith in which he used instinct, not credentials, when hiring assistants.  Smith’s exhibition, Let Truth Be the Prejudice, was on display in a Shinjuku department store in September 1971 and on the first panel there was a large portrait of the bearded Smith.  The twenty-year-old photography student Ishikawa attended that show several times.  A week or two later he was walking down the street in Shinjuku and he saw Smith.  Speaking little to no English, he introduced himself to Smith, who spoke no Japanese.  He ended up spending three years with Gene and Aileen.  Ishikawa’s childhood and youth in rural Japan gave him a perfect background to complement Gene and Aileen in Minamata.

In the CCP archive there are many photographs by Smith in which Ishikawa appears – photos of him building a darkroom in Minamata, for example – that Ishikawa doesn’t remember seeing before.  Tuesday night, after the archive closed, Ishikawa showed me a binder full of images that he made of Gene and Aileen in Minamata, none of which have been published, to my knowledge.  Ishikawa has been returning to Minamata regularly over the years, photographing the changes in the landscape and keeping track of surviving Minamata Disease patients.  It’s an important body of work, and the story of Ishikawa is important, too.  For the past thirty years he’s been traveling to India to photograph the “third sex” Hijras, a body of work that bears the influence of Smith even though Ishikawa has done this work in color.  More on all this later, once I get some scans from him.

Takeshi Ishikawa and Momoko Gill in Minamata. March 2011.

Takeshi Ishikawa and Momoko Gill in Minamata. March 2011.

-Sam Stephenson

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