Ishimoto was born on June 14, 1921 in San Francisco, California, where his parents were farmers. In 1924, the family left the United States and returned to his parents' hometown within present-day Tosa, in Kōchi Prefecture, Japan. After Ishimoto graduated from Kōchi Agricultural High School, he returned to the United States in 1939, studying architecture at Northwestern University in Chicago for two years. Though he did not complete this program, architecture would hold an important place in his photography.
From 1942 to 1944, he was interned with other Japanese Americans at the Amache Internment Camp (also known as Granada Relocation Center) in Colorado. It was here that he began to learn photography.
Returning to Chicago, in 1946 Ishimoto joined the Fort Dearborn Camera Club for amateur filmmakers and photographers there. He enrolled in the Photography Department of the Chicago Institute of Design in 1948 (later the Institute of Design of the Illinois Institute of Technology) and studied with Harry M. Callahan and Aaron Siskind, graduating in 1952. During this time, he won numerous photography awards, including the Moholy-Nagy Prize, which he won twice.
Ishimoto returned to Japan to live in 1953 and that same year, on a commission from New York's Museum of Modern Art, he photographed Katsura Imperial Villa (Katsura rikyū) in Kyoto, working in black-and-white. Work from this assignment eventually was published as the book, Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture (sometimes shortened to Katsura) in 1960. The book has texts by Walter Gropius and Tange Kenzō.
Ishimoto's work was chosen by Edward Steichen to appear in the Family of Man exhibition and catalogue at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955, and Steichen also selected his work for a three-person exhibition in 1961.
From 1958 to 1961, Ishimoto lived and worked in Chicago on a Minolta fellowship. His photographs from this time, mostly street scenes, were eventually published in 1969 as Chicago, Chicago. After having returned to Japan in 1961, Ishimoto became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 1969. During the 1960s, he taught photography at Kuwasawa Design School, the Tokyo College of Photography and, between 1966 and 1971, at Tokyo Zokei University.
Ishimoto travelled and photograph widely, visiting Southwest Asia in 1966, and South America, North Africa and Australia for three months in 1975. The following year he made trips to Iran, Iraq and Turkey and in 1977 he again visited Turkey, also travelling to Spain and India. He visited China in 1978.
With photographs taken at the temple Tō-ji (also known as Kyōō Gokokuji) in Kyoto, Ishimoto produced an exhibition in 1977 called Den Shingonin Ryōkai Mandala (The Mandalas of the Two Worlds). His photography was later used in a very lavish publication of the same title.
Between 1973 and 1993 Ishimoto produced a number of in-camera color abstractions that appeared as covers for the Japanese magazine Approach. In 1980, at the Museum of Modern Art, he photographed Monet's Water Lilies in detail and full size.
Ishimoto returned to Katsura in 1982 and took another series of photographs, this time with many in color, often using the same or very similar views to those of his 1953 photographs at the same location. Work from this project was published in Katsura Villa: Space and Form.
His more recent photography dealt with the transitory nature of life as shown in his photographs of clouds, footprints in melting snow and fallen leaves. This theme was also evident in his photographs of Ise Shrine (also known as Ise Jingū), which he was permitted to photograph in 1993. This ancient Shinto shrine is torn down and rebuilt every twenty years.
Ishimoto participated in many exhibitions, including New Japanese Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in 1974, solo shows in 1960 and 1999 at the Art Institute of Chicago, a retrospective in 1989–1990 at Seibu Museum of Art in Tokyo, and an exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, in 1996.
Ishimoto's many awards include winning the Young Photographer's Contest, Life magazine (1950); the photographer of the year award, Japan Photo Critics Association (1957); the Mainichi Art Award (1970); the annual award (1978, 1990) and distinguished contribution award (1991) of the Photographic Society of Japan; and governmental medals of honour (1983, 1993). In 1996 the Japanese government named Ishimoto a Person of Cultural Merit, an honour that includes a lifelong stipend. In 2004 Ishimoto donated his archive of seven thousand images, valued at 1.4 billion yen, to the Museum of Art, Kochi. In English, Yasuhiro Ishimoto signed his name "Yas Ishimoto". See examples. 
- Art Institute of Chicago. 1960.
- Museum of Modern Art, New York. 1961.
- "Den Shingonin Ryōkai Mandala" / "Mandala of Two Worlds". Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo. 1977.
- Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo. 1989–1990
- Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Rencontres d'Arles festival, 1994.
- "Yasuhiro Ishimoto: Remembrance of Things Present". National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1996.
- "Ishimoto Yasuhiro-ten: Shikago, Tōkyō" (石元泰博展 シカゴ、東京) / "Yasuhiro Ishimoto: Chicago and Tokyo". Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo. 1998.
- "Yasuhiro Ishimoto: A Tale of Two Cities". Art Institute of Chicago. 1999.
- "Yasuhiro Ishimoto: Mandalas of the Two Worlds at the Kyoo Gokokuji". National Museum of Art, Osaka. 1999.
- "Yasuhiro Ishimoto Photographs: Traces of Memory". Cleveland Museum of Art. 2000–2001.
- "Ishimoto Yasuhiro Shashinten 1946–2001" (石元泰博写真展 1946–2001) / "Yasuhiro Ishimoto". The Museum of Art, Kochi. April–May 2001.
Books devoted to Ishimoto's work
- Aru hi aru tokoro (ある日ある所) / Someday somewhere. Geibi Shuppansha, 1958. Tuttle, 1959.
- Katsura: Nihon kenchiku ni okeru dentō to sōzō (桂 日本建築における伝統と創造) / Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture. Zōkeisha and Yale University Press, 1960. Second edition (without English text): Tokyo: Chūōkōronsha, 1971. English-language edition: New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972. ISBN 0-300-01599-2
- Shikago, Shikago (シカゴ、シカゴ) / Chicago, Chicago. Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppansha, 1969. Second edition Tokyo: Japan Publications, 1983. ISBN 0-87040-553-5
- Metropolis [Toshi] (1971)
- (With Haruo Tomiyama.) Ningen kakumei no kiroku (人間革命の記録) / The Document of Human Revolution. Tokyo: Shashin Hyōronsha, 1973.
- Nōmen (能面, "Noh masks"). Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1974.
- Den Shingonin Ryōkai Mandara (伝真言院両界曼荼羅) / The Mandalas of the Two Worlds. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1977. Photographs on folded screens, lavishly produced and packed in two very large boxes. (An edition of 500, priced at 880,000 yen.)
- Eros und Cosmos in Mandala: The Mandalas of the Two Worlds at the Kyoo Gokoku-ji. Seibu Museum of Art.
- Den Shingon in mandara (伝真言院曼荼羅). Kyoto: Sanburaito Shuppan, 1978.
- Kunisaki kikō (国東紀行, "Kunisaki travelogue"). Nihon no Bi. Tokyo: Shūeisha, 1978. A large-format collection of colour photographs of the Kunisaki peninsula in Kyūshū.
- Karesansui no niwa (枯山水の庭, "Dry gardens"). Tokyo: Kōdansha, 1980.
- Yamataikoku gensō (邪馬台国幻想). Nihon no Kokoro. Tokyo: Shūeisha, 1980.
- Isuramu: Kūkan to mon'yō (イスラム：空間と文様) / Islam: Space and Design. Kyoto: Shinshindō, 1980.
- Kōkoku no jūichimen kannon (湖国の十一観音). Tokyo: Iwanami, 1982.
- Shikago, Shikago: Sono 2 (シカゴ、シカゴ その２) / Chicago, Chicago. Tokyo: Libro Port, 1983. ISBN 978-4-8457-0098-1.
- Shikago, Shikago: Sono 2 (シカゴ、シカゴ その２) / Chicago, Chicago. Tokyo: Canon, 1983. More black and white photographs of Chicago. No captions; foreword and chronology of the photographer in Japanese.
- Katsura rikyū: Kūkan to katachi (桂離宮 空間と形). Tokyo: Iwanami, 1983. English translation: Katsura Villa: Space and Form. New York: Rizzoli, 1987.
- Hana (花) / Hana. Tokyo: Kyūryūdō, 1988. ISBN 4-7630-8804-1. English edition: Flowers, San Francisco: Chronicle, 1989. ISBN 0-87701-668-2.
- Kyō no tewaza: Takumi-tachi no emoyō (京の手わざ：匠たちの絵模様). Tokyo: Gakugei Shorin, 1988. ISBN 4-905640-14-8.
- The Photography of Yasuhiro Ishimoto: 1948–1989. Tokyo: Seibu Museum of Art, 1989.
- Ishimoto Yasuhiro Shashinten 1946–2001 (石元泰博 1946–2001) / Yasuhiro Ishimoto. Kōchi, Kōchi: The Museum of Art, Kochi, 2001. Text in Japanese and English.
- Arata Isozaki Works 30: Architectural Models, Prints, Drawings. Gingko, 1992. ISBN 4-89737-139-2.
- Ise Jingū (伊勢神宮, "Ise shrine"). Tokyo: Iwanami, 1995. ISBN 4-00-008061-X.
- Genzai no kioku (現在の記憶) / Remembrance of Things Present. Tokyo: National Museum of Modern Art, 1996. Catalogue of an exhibition held at the National Film Center in 1996. Captions and text in both Japanese and English.
- Ishimoto Yasuhiro (石元泰博). Nihon no Shashinka. Tokyo: Iwanami, 1997. ISBN 4-00-008366-X. A compact survey of Ishimoto's monochrome work; text in Japanese only.
- Yasuhiro Ishimoto: A Tale of Two Cities. Ed. Colin Westerbeck. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1999. ISBN 0-86559-170-9. Catalogue of an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, May–September 1999.
- Toki (刻) / Moment. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2004. ISBN 4-00-008366-X. A survey of Ishimoto's monochrome work; text in Japanese and English.
- Shibuya, Shibuya (シブヤ、シブヤ). Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2007. ISBN 978-4-582-27764-7. Monochrome images, mostly of the backs of individual people waiting for the lights to change at the main crossroads in front of Shibuya Station. No captions; the minimal text is in Japanese and English.
- Meguriau iro to katachi (めぐりあう色とかたち) / Composition. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2008. ISBN 978-4-582-27769-2. Compositions of colors. The minimal text is in Japanese only.
- Tajū rokō (多重露光) / Multi Exposure. Exhibition catalogue.
- Katsura rikyū (桂離宮). 2010. ISBN 4-89737-655-6.
- Nakamori, Yasufumi. Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture. Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 2010. ISBN 0-300-16333-9.
- Moriyama Akiko (森山明子). Ishimoto Yasuhiro: Shashin to iu shikō (石元泰博 写真という思考) / Yasuhiro Ishimoto: Beyond the Eye that Shapes. 武蔵野美術大学出版局, 2010. ISBN 4901631950。
- Szarkowski, John, and Shoji Yamagishi. New Japanese Photography. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1974. ISBN 0-87070-503-2 (hard), ISBN 0-87070-503-2 (paper) Four photographs (1953–1954) from Katsura (1960).
- (Japanese) Nihon nūdo meisakushū (日本ヌード名作集, Japanese nudes). Camera Mainichi bessatsu. Tokyo: Mainichi Shinbunsha, 1982. Pp. 166–69 show nudes by Ishimoto.
- Nihon shashin no tenkan: 1960 nendai no hyōgen (日本写真の転換：1960時代の表現) / Innovation in Japanese Photography in the 1960s. Tokyo: Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, 1991. Exhibition catalogue, text in Japanese and English. Pp. 68–77 show examples from "Chicago, Chicago".
- Densha ni miru toshi fūkei 1981–2006 (電車にみる都市風景 1981–2006 / Scenes of Tokyo City: Prospects from the Train 1981–2006. Tama City, Tokyo: Tama City Cultural Foundation Parthenon Tama, 2006. Exhibition catalogue; pp. 4–13 are devoted to Ishimoto. Captions and text in Japanese and English.
- Or sometimes Ishimoto Taihaku. For example, the photographs "Jidōsha no imēji" (自動車のイメージ; alternative English title "Land of Cars") in Asahi Camera February 1962, pp. 70–74, are credited to 石元泰博 and "Taihaku Ishimoto"; in his English-language summary at the back of the magazine, the editor refers to him as "Taihaku (Yasuhiro) Ishimoto".
- Luisa Orto and Matsuda Takako, 'Artist Profiles'; in Tucker, et al., The History of Japanese Photography, 345.
- The name of the internment camp has been given in different sources as "Amache", "Amachi", "Armach" and variations of "Granada Relocation Center".
- Camper, Fred (June 10, 1999). "Men on the Street, The everyday art of two extraordinary photographers: Marvin Newman and Yasuhiro Ishimoto". Chicago Reader. Retrieved April 23, 2012.
- Michèle Auer and Michel Auer, Encyclopédie internationale des photographes de 1839 à nos jours/Photographers Encyclopaedia International 1839 to the Present (Hermance: Editions Camera Obscura, 1985). Auer and Auer mention only "filmmakers", but presumably intend to include photographers.
- Auer and Auer use the phrase "Middle and Near East".
- Orto and Matsuda.
- Auer, Michèle, and Michel Auer. Encyclopédie internationale des photographes de 1839 à nos jours/Photographers Encyclopaedia International 1839 to the Present. Hermance: Editions Camera Obscura, 1985.
- Ishimoto Photographs of Katsura Imperial Villa at the Canadian Centre for Architecture
- Colorado Department of Personnel & Administration. WWII Japanese Internment Camp; 'The Granada Relocation Center Site'. Accessed 31 March 2006
- George Eastman House. George Eastman House Database, s.v. "Ishimoto, Yasuhiro". Accessed 31 March 2006
- I Photo Central. 'E-Photo Newsletter, Issue 84, 1/17/2005'. Accessed, cited 31 March 2006
- Ishimoto, Yasuhiro. 'Postscript'. In Katsura Villa: Space and Form (New York: Rizzoli, 1987), 265, 266.
- Isozaki, Arata, Osamu Sato and Yasuhiro Ishimoto. Katsura Villa: Space and Form (New York: Rizzoli, 1987).
- Longmire, Stephen. "Callahan's Children: Recent Retrospectives of Photographers from the Institute of Design". Afterimage, vol. 28, no. 2 (September/October 2000), 6.
- Photo Gallery International. 'Gallery; Gallery Artists; Yasuhiro Ishimoto'. Accessed 29 October 2003
- Stephen Daiter Gallery. Yasuhiro Ishimoto Photographs. Accessed 26 May 2008.
- Tucker, Anne Wilkes, et al. The History of Japanese Photography. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-300-09925-8
- Union List of Artist Names, s.v. "Ishimoto, Yasuhiro". Accessed 31 March 2006
- Yannopoulos, Charles. 'Uncommon Vision', Clevescene.com (originally published by Cleveland Scene, 2000-11-16). Accessed 31 March 2006