Yasuhiro Ishimoto: Someday, Chicago at DePaul Art Museum Captures the Faces of Chicago in the 50s

Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Untitled, from the Chicago, Chicago series, 1959–61. Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in. Collection of DePaul Art Museum, gift of Stephen Daiter, 2012.57. Photograph courtesy of DePaul Art Museum.

On display at the DePaul Art Museum is Yasuhiro Ishimoto: Someday, Chicago, an exhibition that examines the work of photographer Yasuhiro Ishimoto (1921–2012). Included are 40 photographs, the majority of them capturing urban scenes in Chicago, where he lived for nearly a decade and where he would continue to return throughout his life. This exhibition alludes to two of Ishimoto’s most significant photography books: Someday Somewhere (1958) and Chicago, Chicago (1969).

Ishimoto was born in San Francisco and was raised on Shikoku Island in southern Japan. After finishing high school, he returned to California just before World War II to attend college, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government placed approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans, who had been living on the West Coast, in internment camps. Ishimoto was sent in the fall of 1942 to the Granada Relocation Center in Colorado. It was there that he took up the camera with the guidance of amateur photographers who were also incarcerated. It was during this time that Ishimoto began to develop his artistic vision, such as his sense of composition, as well as texture and contrast.

After his internment ended, Ishimoto came to Chicago as a result of the U.S. government’s resettlement program. He studied at the Institute of Design where he encountered László Moholy-Nagy, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, among other teachers, and developed his unique modernist vision. It was also during this time that his work was influenced by urban scenes in various Chicago neighborhoods.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Untitled, 1949/50. Gelatin silver print, printed c. 1970s. 12 3/16 x 10 in. Collection of DePaul Art Museum, gift of Margaret and Cole Lundquist, 2015.22. Photograph courtesy of DePaul Art Museum.

The time that Ishimoto spent in Chicago (1945-53 and 1958-61) was a period when neighborhoods were formed along racial and ethnic borders. Because he was part of a minority ethnic group that had been legally segregated and considered a threat, Ishimoto knew what it felt like to be considered an outsider due to one’s racial identity. This experience made him more empathetic toward his subjects.

Ishimoto captures the many faces of Chicago—the racially segregated neighborhoods; the devastating effects of concentrated poverty; scenes of the middle class at the beach; and buildings that were being constructed in downtown Chicago. Ishimoto’s favorite subjects seem to be children at play on city streets, but he also had an affinity for Chicago’s skyscrapers and the city’s skyline.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Untitled, 1951–52. Gelatin silver print, printed c. 1970s, 12 3/16 x 10 in. Collection of DePaul Art Museum, gift of Margaret and Cole Lundquist, 2015.45. Photograph courtesy of DePaul Art Museum.

Some of Ishimoto’s photos offer a commentary about Chicago during the ’50s — in one photo there is a billboard with the words “Pay or Die” while a black man and a white man seem to hurry past each other while avoiding eye contact. There is also an ominous image of a man holding a rifle as he looms high above a marquee as if standing guard. Another powerful image is a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. giving an impassioned speech about integration.

Besides Ishimoto’s interest in street photography, he also created abstract compositions. In 1953, a year after graduating from the Institute of Design, he began to make abstract color photographs based on multiple-exposure images of architecture and landscape. He would continue this series into the 1990s. These photos demonstrate his commitment to exploring the visual elements of composition, pattern and light.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Untitled, 1980. Cibachrome photograph, 14 x 11 in. Collection of DePaul Art Museum, gift of Stephen Daiter Gallery on behalf of Yasuhiro Ishimoto, 2012.56. Photograph courtesy of DePaul Art Museum.

Also on display are a couple of Ishimoto’s 16mm films that have been transferred to digital files. One film is titled The Church on Maxwell Street that is shot in a straight-forward documentary style that he created in collaboration with his colleague, Marvin Newman. Kine Calligraph on the other hand is an experimental film that he did in collaboration with Kiyoji Otsuji and Saiko Tsuji.

This exhibition also displays digital reproductions of his photos from the time he spent at the internment camp in Colorado in 1942-45. These photos document views of everyday life at the camp.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto: Someday, Chicago is a powerful exhibition because it demonstrates how Ishimoto captured Chicago’s urban landscape—from racially segregated neighborhoods to downtown streets—with an empathetic eye. He documents a city in flux as societal shifts were reverberating not only in Chicago but across the United States as well.

From the wall text, here is a poem about Chicago that Ishimoto wrote in 1969 and perhaps sums up his feelings for the city:
Chicago is ugly
Chicago is beautiful
Chicago is young
Chicago I love

This exhibition will run through December 16. The DePaul Art Museum is located at 935 W. Fullerton Avenue. Gallery hours are Wednesday and Thursday 11am-7pm; Friday, Saturday and Sunday 11am-5pm. Admission is free. For more information, visit their website or call 773-325-7506.

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Thomas Wawzenek
Thomas Wawzenek