Every art form has a notion of a cult work, that is something that is not widely known but develops a following, often amongst the cognoscenti. As I was developing my interest in photography, one of the first cult works recommended to me was a book called The Solitude of Ravens by the Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase. Around 2008 I snagged one online for thirty bucks or so, just before they went up in price tenfold. Without knowing anything about Fukase, the Ravens series immediately drew me in with its arresting depiction of the forlornness of nature via the birds in the title. I felt their pull anew on my recent visit to Japan – somehow on this trip I kept noticing ravens every day.
Fukase was a highly influential artist, one of the first to pave the way for a generation of Japanese photographers, even though he remains less known outside of Japan than his contemporaries such as Daido Moriyama and Araki, with whom he co-founded one of the first schools of photography in Japan. His own style, known as shi-shashin (“I-photography”) was intensely personal, and his personal life was intense. Mentally unstable, Fukase turned to photography as both a sort of therapy and self-exploration, turning the camera onto himself and his family, especially his romantic partners Yukio Kawakami and Yoko Wanibe, both of whom eventually fled from him.
I have never seen Fukase’s photos outside of books, until recently when I visited a retrospective of Fukase’s work at TOP Museum in Tokyo. It’s a comprehensive exhibit that traces the arc of Fukase’s work and his eventual descent that was hastened by a head trauma from a fall.
The photos are arranged by chapters in a chronological order, tracing the arc of Fukase’s troubled life. They show his brilliance at finding the surreal in the mundane, and the mundane in the surreal. Some of the powerful photos are the most intimate, like those of his family seated with their backs to him, except his wife Yoko, who is stripped to the waist, her hair covering her breasts, looking unflinchingly into the camera. The tension is as real as it is matter of fact.
Fukase was also great at catching and enlarging a detail that made some of his photos arresting, like the mouth of a cat, or a claw of a raven. Ravens, the series that drew me in first, remains the most powerful of his work. The solitude, the sense of foreboding, but also of a certain uneasy, solitary peace will either discomfort or comfort you, and may tell you more about yourself than you want to know.
Masahisa Fukase 1961-1991 Retrospective, TOP Museum in Tokyo, through June 4th, 2023
All images courtesy of the museum and Fukase’s archive