The optics of urban ruination

Ishikawa Kōyō

News from David Fedman of a new article co-authored with Cary Karacas, ‘The optics of urban ruination‘, which complements their previous, vital work on the cartographic imaginary of bombing.  It’s published in the Journal of Urban History but you can access it here.

World War II yielded many photographs of bombed-out cities. In this paper we telescope between two sets and scales of images that represent the principal frames through which the American and Japanese publics have memorialized the incendiary bombings that laid waste to urban Japan: aerial photographs taken by the US Army Air Forces during its wartime planning, prosecution, and assessment of the raids; and the ground-level images captured by Ishikawa Kōyō, a photographer working on behalf of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. By means of a detailed examination of the production, circulation, and consumption of these photographs— what some scholars have called an “archaeological approach” to images of ruination—we explore not only the visual rhetoric and reality of the destruction of Japan’s cities, but also how that destruction is situated in history, memory, and visual culture.

As always with their work, it’s exquisitely written, intellectually savvy and a very powerful argument.  They juxtapose the photographic ‘view from above’ that was instrumental in the planning and execution of the American air raids with Ishikawa Kōyō’s ground-level perspective.  His work is virtual unknown outside Japan and yet, as they say, has become ‘the principal visual testimony in Japan for public memory of the incendiary air raids as they were experienced on the ground’:

What followed were, according to Ishikawa, scenes from hell. His detailed account of that evening indeed repeatedly invokes infernal metaphors to describe Tokyo’s destruction. The “demon’s wings”(akuma no tsubasa) rained fire that carbonized corpses which “flowed through the streets like rapids.”  The elements also conspired against the city to whip up the red winds (akakaze) that fanned the firestorms: “immense incandescent vortices,” he wrote, “rose in a number of places, swirling, flattening, sucking whole blocks of houses into a maelstrom of fire.”

Widespread chaos, intense heat, and the realization of the need to save his own life pre-vented Ishikawa from taking any photographs. His Chevrolet destroyed by flames, he slowly made his way on foot back to the Metropolitan Police Headquarters. After resting his fatigued body, at around 2 P.M. on March 10 Ishikawa set out to document the aftermath. He saw bodies “piled like mountains” (shitai no yama o kizuiteita) and corpses burnt to the point that “you could no longer discern the sex of the body” (danjyo no kubetsu mo tsukanai shitai).

Ishikawa first told himself not to photograph such upsetting images, but then, recalling his responsibilities to capture the “reality of the scenes,” he began to snap the shutter.That day Ishikawa took thirty-three photographs of the aftermath of what came to be called the Great Tokyo Air Raid.

You can find more at Japan Air Raids, a brilliant bilingual archive, and a (harrowing) selection of Ishikawa’s images here.  If you do click on that link, heed their warning:

While photographs such as [these] provide an intimate sense of the bodily pain that was inflicted by the firebombing, they also require much of the viewer. It is one thing to look at such photographs; it is another thing altogether to comprehend or attach meaning to the actual suffering it exposes.

And – do I have to say this? – it’s worth thinking about other scenes of urban ruination.

3 thoughts on “The optics of urban ruination

  1. Pingback: Fwd: The blue sky of Hiroshima | Maine Talk

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