Kevin J. Miyazaki: The States Project: Wisconsin
One thing that is special about my position here at Lenscratch is the ability to celebrate those that I admire and respect most. When The Lenscratch States Project first was in development, I immediately thought of Kevin J. Miyazaki as the representative to my home of Wisconsin. Kevin’s reach has gone far as a teacher, as a friend, and as one of the most prominent photographers in the state. His familial history is the basis for much of his work, as is the explorations into his Japanese heritage. Both thoughtful and quiet, today’s work Echo, is a lovely conversation between Kevin’s extended past and immediate present.
Kevin J. Miyazaki is an artist and photographer living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His artwork addresses issues of family history, memory, and space, both personal and institutional. His work has been exhibited at a variety of institutions, including the Photographic Center Northwest, The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and The Rayko Photo Center. Perimeter, a solo exhibition commissioned by the Haggerty Museum of Art in 2013, was published in book form by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press in 2014. Kevin’s editorial clients include The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living and Travel & Leisure. He is an adjunct faculty member at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and was an artist in residence at the Center for Photography at Woodstock in 2015.
Kevin shares his perspective of being a Wisconsin-based photographer:
There are terrific artists and photographers in this state, and it’s a very friendly and supportive environment here – good energy at all levels, from college students to gallerists, curators and well-seasoned artists.
I shoot a lot of food for the editorial photography side of my life, and I think that artists and chefs are sharing the love of the local these days. If you lived in New York City, your art viewing and food sampling would be larger and more diverse. But one can live where they want to these days, and be both appreciated by their local audience, and also in touch with what’s happening elsewhere. The online photography world, which I’ve always found incredibly friendly, helps to connect us all.
Echo is a new, evolving body of work that addresses family history in an investigative manner. The name is taken from the newspaper my great grandfather founded in Hawaii in 1897, The Kona Echo. The project combines newly created photographs with existing, older elements: stories, family pictures and artifacts. I’m interested in both gathering family history and adding to it, creating a narrative that is both archival in nature, but also fluid.
The first work produced for the series was a video, Yuki’s Album, in which I presented the 58 pages from a photo album that belonged to my maternal grandmother, who I never met. Working with the structure of the album has informed Echo, as I now see the family photo album as a metaphor for family history in a larger sense: photo albums contain evidence and documentation, but also missing elements, characters known and unknown, places familiar and unidentified. The photo album as archival object can tell a story, but it’s never a complete one.
I grew up in an Asian American living in a white Midwestern suburb. While the specific elements that will make up Echo are deeply personal to my family’s history in Wisconsin, Hawaii, Washington state and Japan, I’m drawn to the larger subject of American ethnic clarity, and stories of migration and place. American stories may be unique and differ in regards to places of origin and reasons for immigration or displacement, but I’m hoping that viewers may find ways to make connections with this work and their own ancestral paths.
Being a working editorial photographer you tend to travel often and far. I can only imagine the places that you have seen, the things you have experienced. What keeps you rooted in Wisconsin of all places?
Wisconsin will always be home to me – I was born and raised here and feel deeply connected. I’m lucky to be able to travel a lot, but my location near to Chicago (Milwaukee is just 90 minutes away) is really important for much of the editorial work I do. My partner Marilu (a sculpture park director) lives in St. Louis, so that makes for even more time away, but I always feel most at home in Wisconsin.
So much of your work explores the intersection of place and home as they exist in both the past and present. Why are you drawn to these themes?
It seems to me that people are either very interested in their roots and family history, or not at all. I just can’t seem to get enough of anything related to my ancestors and those who came before me, including my parents. I’m fascinated with the paths that my ancestors took and the events (on both personal and national/international levels) that changed my particular family history.
I grew up Asian American in a white, suburban Midwestern setting, so that may be a source for some of my interest. And while what I’m interested in is deeply personal to me and my family, we all share compelling stories of those who came before us – histories of emigration, migration or displacement, whether chosen or forced.
I copy a lot of old family photographs that belong to my relatives – one favorite is a photo postcard of an old Japanese steamer ship in a photo album that belonged to my maternal grandmother. There’s nothing written on the page, so there’s no way of knowing who was aboard that ship – possibly a friend, likely a relative. So it’s a bit mysterious, but very symbolic, and I love that photograph because so many others could find a similar picture in their old family albums – ships coming from Ireland or Sweden, or the Philippines. The similarities that exist in a land of immigrants, along with the amazingly diverse individual stories, is what this country unique and special. Now, more than ever, we should all remember that.
When it comes to this new body of work, Echo, I read much poetry in the conversation with your ancestry. Who do you imagine you are talking to?
I’ve never thought of it that way, and I love that you framed it in those terms. You know that hypothetical question, ‘If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?’ I think my answer would be my maternal great grandparents, who came to Hawaii from Japan in the late 1800’s, and my paternal grandparents, who arrived a bit later to the West Coast, and who lived through the effects of displacement and incarceration during WWll. They all lived through great change their lives, and I have so much respect for their fortitude.
In thinking about relatives I’ve never met, I the underlying question is what they were like as people – how they treated others, their sense of humor, their mannerisms. And then ultimately, which of those qualities, if any, where handed down to me?
By appropriating family photographs and artifacts are you ever concerned that in utilizing one narrative to satisfy another you may be dissolving the context in how these objects originally existed?
The work in Echo is a mix of old family photos and objects, along with photographs I’ve made in the past, or newly created for the series. All of the pictures that I’ve created, though often seemingly small moments, hold a great deal of meaning. So I think I’m quite protective and careful of how I juxtapose those older items with newer images. Connecting them all is family, bloodlines, and I’m trying to tell the story of my family in a new way. In one diptych, a photograph I made of my great grandmother’s brooches is paired with a photograph of my nephew’s hand, holding his agate collection. The pairings need to work visually, but there has to be underlying meaning for me, even if it’s not evident to the viewer.
Are you currently working on any Wisconsin based projects at the moment?
For the past few years, I’ve been making typological portraits of people against a black background. It started with a series of portraits of protestors at the state capital in Madison, and continued with a commission from the Haggerty Museum of Art, where I photographed people connected to Lake Michigan. In addition to the exhibition, that project (Perimeter) resulted in a book, and one day I hope to expand on that, by making portraits all over the state. I’d love to spend time traveling from one end of the state to the other, photographing everyday Wisconsinites.
Finally, describe your perfect day.
Location: Milwaukee, with my partner Marilu in town. We live in different cities, sometimes think of our time together like dog years – so 1 day is like 3 in our world. Season: Summer. We really appreciate summer in Milwaukee.
Morning News: Steve Inskeep announces the election of a Hillary/Bernie team.
Art: A photography exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum would be perfect (currently, Larry Sultan: Here and Home is on view). Marilu would make sure we hit the Green Gallery and The Suburban.
Nourishment: Mimosas for breakfast; Lunch at Rocket Baby bakery near my house; A decadent, inventive dinner at Ardent restaurant; In between courses, pour-over coffees at Stone Creek Coffee; Mimosas for dessert.
Reading: I’m trying to read more non-glowing text in the coming year. I have piles of about 2 years worth of New York Times Sunday magazines to get through.
Entertainment: Some kind of binge-watching. Master of None is a current favorite.
Oh, And: Photographs throughout the day. Lots of photographs.
Posts on Lenscratch may not be reproduced without the permission of the Lenscratch staff and the photographer.
Barbara Ciurej & Lindsay Lochman: The States Project: WisconsinJanuary 10th, 2016
Naomi Shersty: The States Project: WisconsinJanuary 9th, 2016
Jon Horvath: The States Project: WisconsinJanuary 8th, 2016
Lois Bielefeld: The States Project: WisconsinJanuary 7th, 2016
Sonja Thomsen: The States Project: WisconsinJanuary 6th, 2016