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Book of the Week: Selected by Sara J. Winston

Book Review My Husband Photographs by Tokuko Ushioda Reviewed by Sara J. Winston “Generally, photographers photograph what they see. When a photographer becomes a new parent, what do they see?"

My Husband By Tokuko Ushioda.
My Husband
Photographs by Tokuko Ushioda

torch press, Tokyo, Japan, 2022. In Japanese and English. Book 1: 122pp.; Book 2: 76pp., both 7 1⁄2 x 9 1⁄2".

Generally, photographers photograph what they see. When a photographer becomes a new parent, what do they see?

Tokuko Ushioda’s My Husband is a set of two books delicately held together by a nearly three-inch-wide obi, or Japanese style-belly band. We are given access to the one room Western-style flat Ushioda shared with her husband, photographer Shinzo Shimao, and their daughter, Maho, during their first five years together as a family. Yet My Husband doesn’t produce the sense that Ushioda is photographing Shimao and Maho as though they are her muses, but rather she photographs gracefully all that is before her — all that she sees. The stairwell, a mirror, Maho in her crib, three figurines, towels hung to dry, Shimao trimming Maho’s incredibly straight bangs, the view out the window, herself in the mirror or her likeness seen by Shimao.

We learn from the publisher's description, and later the essays in the book, that the work included in My Husband sat dormant in the photographer’s storage for 40 years until it was re-discovered while the space was being packed up. The latency of these photographs, while much longer than most, delivers imagery that feels totally contemporary. Frank, yet quiet. Contemplative and observant. Neutral without a psychological tilt. Highly autobiographical but without overbearing nostalgia. 

“Living her life with a young child, where just getting through the quota of daily tasks uses up the entirety of her energy, Ushioda-san is suddenly visited by moments where nobody is around. These are quiet, slightly lonely, and yet intensely rich moments. The sense of loneliness, and an accompanying sense of the joy found even in that loneliness. Even if you spend the vast majority of the day as a mother and a wife, those fleeting moments when you can photograph are opportunities to validate your own existence and bring a deep sense of relief.” — from the essay “Scenes from My Husband” by artist and author Yurie Nagashima

For me, this two volume set is an overdue introduction to Ushioda’s work. Book 1, a hardcover, contains a series of 6x6 black-and-white images. Book 2, a softcover, includes 35mm black-and-white photographs. Both volumes include similar subject matter, and it could be said that only the image format and the distinct book covers distinguish the two. The square format is quintessential of Ushioda’s later works for which she is best known, while the 35mm format is attributed more to the men of the era, including Shimao.

My Husband: Book 1 is set in motion with an image of Ushioda herself holding her child, with image credit given to Shimao in the author’s notes. Direct sunlight washes over the figure which makes it difficult to decipher who is walking toward the camera. If one looks quickly, it would be possible to read the person as Shimao. But we aren’t introduced to the likeness of her husband until page nine, and then once we are acquainted with him, his presence is intermittent. This fact causes one to wonder, how did the title of the book come to be?

In the case of the best books, it isn’t just what is in the pictures that draws us in and beckons us to return, but also what we try to understand and piece together in the space between images. In this case, it’s in the space between books. 

In My Husband: Book 2, the tempo of life appears to speed up. We begin with views from Ushioda’s maternity clinic; Maho is an infant again at the start of Book 2, and then suddenly, she is no longer an infant, but a busy toddler like she is at the end of Book 1. There is more motion contained within the images, and the family begins to venture outside of the home more. Vantage points change more rapidly, and the softback allows for faster flipping through the pages. There is only one portrait of the family of three, with credit given to a self-timer. Shimao is never depicted holding his camera, though we know that he was photographing during this period too, as evidenced through his book Maho-Chan published in 2004 by Osirus, featuring 82 black-and-white 35mm photographs of the couple's daughter.

There isn’t enough time or space in this review to get into the history of patriarchy or submission in Japanese culture, as well as its photographic canon, but it would be careless not to praise Tokuko Ushioda for her decades of perseverance. My Husband is released into a world much different than the one that existed at the time of its making in 1978-1983. Thanks to female photographers in Japan in the intervening 44 years, the world is ready to receive a female gaze of domesticity and motherhood as being worthy of the subject of art. 

My Husband is a joy. I am glad that it has finally arrived. 

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Sara J. Winston
is an artist based in the Hudson Valley region of New York, USA. She works with photographs, text, and the book form to describe and respond to chronic illness and its ongoing impact on the body, mind, family, and memory. Sara is the Photography Program Coordinator at Bard College and on the faculty of the Penumbra Foundation Long Term Photobook Program.