"Bleakly atmospheric ... Koen-dori, Shibuya (1982) by Masahisha Fukase. Photograph courtesy of the artist"
"Masahisa Fukase's Ravens: the best photobook of the past 25 years?
Brooding and shatteringly lonely, the Japanese photographer's series on ravens has been hailed as masterpiece of mourning
The British Journal of Photography recently asked a panel of experts, including photographer Chis Killip and the writer Gerry Badger, to select their best photobook of the past 25 years. Surpisingly, perhaps, Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency, from 1986, came a close second to a much less well-known book, Masahisa Fukase's Karasu (Ravens), which was published the same year.
While Goldin's book is now widely regarded as a pioneering classic of the raw, confessional style of photographic memoir, Fukase's work is described by the BJP as "an obscure masterpiece". A Japanese first edition, originally published by Sokyu-sha, currently fetches around £2,000 on the collectors' market, up to twice that if signed by the author.
My copy is, as far as I can ascertain, a third edition, which was issued in a print run of 1,000 copies by the charmingly titled Rathole Gallery in 2008. Here, the English title is The Solitude of Ravens. In her afterword, Akira Hasegawa writes: "The depth of solitude in Masahisa Fukase's photographs makes me shudder". One can see what she means. It is a darkly fascinating and obsessive work that lodges in the mind.
Fukase's images are grainy, dark and impressionistic. Often, he magnifies his negatives or overexposes them, aiming all the time for mood over technical refinement. He photographs flocks from a distance, and single birds that appear like black silhouettes against grey, wintry skies. They are captured in flight, blurred and ominous, and at rest, perching on telegraph wires, trees, fences and chimneys. Fusake photographs them alive and dead, and maps their shadows in harsh sunlight and their tracks in the snow.
Although the visual narrative is punctuated by other mysterious images – a nude, fleshy masseuse, a malevolent-looking cat, windswept girls peering over a boat rail, a homeless man drinking in what looks like a municipal rubbish tip – it is the ravens that obsess Fukase. His vision is so stark, so relentlessly monochrome, that you cannot help but wonder what kind of hold they had on his imagination. In The Photobook: A History, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger suggest one possible reading: "One climatic image of silhouetted birds in formation, wings outstretched against a grainy sky, metamorphoses into a wire news service image of overheard warplanes – a significant and traumatic image for postwar Japan."
Ultimately, though, it seems that Fukase's 10-year pursuit of the ravens was a way of trying to make sense of an altogether more personal emotional trauma. One of the most illuminating reflections on the book I have come across is by the photographer Stacy Oborn, on her always-stimulating website, the Space In Between. In an essay entitled The Art of Losing Love, Oborn notes: "Fukase's best-known work was made while reeling from loss of love." She points out that Fukase began his pursuit of the ravens just after Yoko, his wife of 13 years, left him. "While on a train returning to his hometown of Hokkaido, perhaps feeling unlucky and ominous," she writes, "Fukase got off at stops and began to photograph something which in his culture and in others represents inauspicious feeling: ravens. He became obsessed with them, with their darkness and loneliness." The Solitude of Ravens, then, is a book of mourning. (Yoko, tellingly, was Fukase's main subject before he turned his camera on the ravens.)
Fukase was born in 1934 and belonged to a generation of Japanese photographers who came to prominence in the long psychological shadow cast by their country's defeat in the war. In the late 1950s, he worked in advertising to fund his artistic projects, which included two celebrated series of darkly graphic pictures, Oil Refinery Skies (1960) and Kill the Pigs (1961), the latter a brutal depiction of a slaughterhouse. In the mid-70s, he set up a photography school called the Workshop alongside Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama, both of whom have since become internationally celebrated.
Fukase, according to Yoko, was an intense and obsessive character despite the joyousness of the images he made of her. She described their life together as moments of "suffocating dullness interspersed by violent and near suicidal flashes of excitement." After they split up, he suffered from bouts of depression and heavy drinking. "I work and photograph while hoping to stop everything," he once said. "In that sense, my work may be some kind of revenge drama about living now."
In Japanese mythology, ravens are disruptive presences and harbingers of dark and dangerous times – another reason, perhaps, why the photographer was drawn to them during his darkest hour. In 1992, five years after the book was published, Fukase fell down a flight of stairs in a bar. He has been in a coma ever since. His former wife, now remarried, visits him in hospital twice a month. "With a camera in front of his eye, he could see; not without," she told an interviewer. "He remains part of my identity; that's why I still visit him."
None of this should impinge on a critical reading of Fukase's work, which is powerful and affecting even if you come upon it, as I did, without knowing anything of the biographical background that underpins it. Nevertheless, it is now hard for me to separate his life and his photographs. "In Ravens, Fukase's work can be deemed to have reached its utmost height and to have fallen to its greatest depth," writes Hasegawa in her poetic, unflinching afterword.
For all that, there is a dark, brooding beauty in these images that is singular and affecting. In The Solitude of Ravens, Fukase found a subject that reflected his darkening vision, and he pursued it with obsessive relentlessness. It remains his most powerful work, and a kind of epitaph for a life that has been even sadder and darker than the photographs suggest."