Confessions of a solitary photographer: Tomo Kosuga on the prism of people, places and events in Fukase's Ravens

Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens is one of the defining bodies of work in the history of photography and a high point in the photo book genre. This accumulation of accolades, and the passing of time, have obscured much of the fascinating detail which explains the artist’s pre-occupation with this motif throughout his work. It was not simply a reflection of the existential angst and anhedonia he suffered throughout his life but manifested in artistic self-identification with the raven and ultimately spiralled into a solitary existence and artistic practice on the edge of madness. And all this before an untimely accident in 1992, a fall down the stairs of his favourite bar, resulted in him spending the final twenty years before his death with his consciousness suspended and in medical isolation. Fukase became the singular raven frozen by his camera and immortalized on the cover of his most famous book.

Masahisa Fukase was born in 1934 in the northern Japanese town of Bifuka in Hokkaido. He was the eldest child of a family who ran a photo studio called Fukase Shashinkan, established by his grandfather in 1908. At the age of six he was helping with washing prints, and after moving up to middle school his tasks came to include travelling to town festivals and ceremonies to take photographs. He was expected to take over the family business but he became fascinated with Tokyo when he moved to the city to study photography, and decided to settle there and to become a photographer. In 1968, after a period working as a commercial photographer for the Nippon Design Center and later for Kawade Shobo Publishers, Fukase made the production of his own work his priority, successfully presenting it in photography magazines and exhibitions. His subjects included his wife and family, his pet cats, and ultimately the inescapable subject that is the self. In other words, his prolific output focused on the private.It has often been noted that Japanese photographers regard photo books as the primary vehicle to present their work, and Fukase was no exception. All of the photo books he produced consistently dealt with his private and personal engagement with the world. What emerges when viewing the totality of Fukase’s work is nothing more or less than the photographer himself. To understand Ravens, therefore, one must take a retrospective glance into the photo books that he published before the first release of Ravens in 1986. The first photo book Fukase published was Homo Ludence (1971).1 The book brings together the photographs he made over a ten year period divided into six chapters: the still birth of his child, the disappearance of the mother of his stillborn child, a visit to a slaughter house, his marriage to his new companion and his life with her, the hippies and drugs he encountered in Shinjuku when he stormed out of the house after the repeated conflicts with his wife, and finally the reclaimed life with his wife. The style of documentation of such events and people and the form of this book reflect Japan in the decade to the early 1970s, a heady era of rapid economic growth. Homo Ludence was followed by Yohko in 1978. Whilst his wife was the motif of this series the two had actually divorced two years prior to the publication of the book. Married life was indeed reprised after Fukase’s three-year absence during which he ran off to Shinjuku solely for the sake of completing the series, but the photographs were taken under Fukase’s painfully one-sided determination to “keep on photographing Yohko for a year even if it may not turn out to be interesting”.2 Ultimately this single-minded approach ensured that the separation was permanent. Yohko has written a sharp analysis of this period in a text entitled “The Incurable Egoist”.

We have lived together for ten years, but he has only seen me through the lens, and I believe that all the photographs of me were unquestionably photographs of himself. 3

Fukase himself acknowledged this tag of “incurable egoist” when he said that he was in “a paradoxical situation where [we] were together just so [I] could take photographs of her”.4 Fukase essentially sacrificed his private life for his photography.

When I think about it, I was born into photography and my life has always revolved around photography. There’s nothing I can do now, but I always forced the people I loved to become involved for the sake of my taking photographs, and I couldn’t make anyone happy, including myself. I was always lost, and caused other people to become lost. Is it fun to take photographs? 5

This is the confession of a man who sought to see himself reflected in the eyes of everyone else. It is an achingly sad declaration of the burden of being a photographer. He despaired over his ineluctable fate but it was precisely this fate that created the solitary photographer we know and celebrate. “Is it fun to take photographs?” he asks, but it is difficult to see any trace of fun in his images. At this point Fukase had already sunk so deep into photography that he could not answer the question for himself. In the last period of his marriage with Yohko, Fukase began work on his next photo book, his magnum opus which was published as Karasu [Ravens] in 1986 by Sokyu-sha. The start of the series was a journey to his home island Hokkaido in 1976. He was forty-two years old at the time. His life was in tatters due to issues with alcohol and the imminent collapse of his decadelong marriage. Unable to handle the situation, Fukase left Tokyo in the hope of escaping his problems. When he returned to Tokyo not long after, he decided to exhibit the photographs he had taken during this trip. He showed the photographs to Shoji Yamagishi, who was working as an editor for the photography magazine Camera Mainichi. Fukase had originally planned to call the series Tonpoku-ki, or “the accounts of an escape to the north,” but Yamagishi suggested “ravens”, due to the preponderance of photographs of the birds. Fukase recalled that he “wasn’t sure at first because it made me think of wildlife photographs but I decided to go with it because of the expression tabi-garasu [literally meaning ‘travelling raven’ referring to people moving from one place to another with no stable place to live]”. By the time of Ravens it becomes absolutely clear that what Fukase was primarily interested in was photographs of himself, looking at himself through the prism of the people, places and events in his life.” 6 Fukase had actually been building this body of work over a long period of time, presenting photographs from the series in the form of both contributions to magazines and in small exhibitions. Particularly valuable for understanding this entire body of work is the eight-installment serial that ran in Camera Mainichi from 1976 to 1982, which includes Fukase’s texts rigorously detailing his emotions and the way he related to the ravens. It also clarifies the chronological sequence of the elements of the series, commencing with the photographs of his native Hokkaido in 1976. In a later installment in 1978, he travelled to Kanazawa, Yohko’s home town. Referring to the time when he photographed a murder of ravens flying through the night sky for the first time when he was in Kanazawa, Fukase wrote:

Ravens live in groups. They return to their roost at sunset, and fly out in twos and threes at sunrise seeking food. So the time that a flock can be photographed is restricted to sunset and sunrise, when it is still so dim that the camera’s meter does not even sense the light. I then had the idea that perhaps the ravens in the pitch-black night [a play of words on the title of a Japanese fairy tale entitled Black Buffalo in the Pitch-black Night] could be captured using flash light. I was not confident at all but I gave it a try at the Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa. The results were splendid. I liked the effect: the birds caught in flight glistened with a dark sheen, and the eyeballs of those on the trees sparkled. 7

One of the photographs made on this occasion is the photograph on page 9 of Ravens, titled Kanazawa, 1978. It was used in Fukase’s previous book, Yohko, as the final image to that volume. This was not the only glimpse of ravens in Yohko. In some photographs Yohko appears with long hair hiding her face and she resembles a large bird. Even more pertinent is an image where she stands on a Noh stage, found in the latter pages of the book. Despite the fact that the camera draws close to her, the image has an indistinct haziness that renders her facial expression indiscernable. Her raised arms and general posture give the appearance of a bird about to take flight. This image is followed by the aforementioned Kanazawa, 1978. Fukase, we may surmise, saw Yohko reflected in the ravens he encountered in her home town. The texts published in Camera Mainichi also offer additional important information about the context of the photographs in Ravens. For example, towards the end of the trip to Hokkaido in 1976 after the break with Yohko, Fukase made a photograph that would prove important. It was taken in Erimo Cape and Fukase recalls the event:

The raven searching in the dustbins in the rest area remains calm even when I draw close, to within about two meters. It is not scared of the camera. It looks into the lens as if in wonder, and croaks at it. I became a raven with a camera, and played following my black friend who came and went high and low in the thick fog.8

The raven described here seems to be solitary and composed. In general in Fukase’s images, however, the ravens are flying or, when they are not, they are captured in groups. Could the raven referred to in this text be the one in the most widely known image of the series, namely Raven, Erimo Cape, 1976, on page 3? It was on that trip that the ravens became more than a simple motif for Fukase. He discerned himself in them to the point that he imagined himself a raven playing with his “black friends” in the sky. Against the backdrop of the recent end to his marriage, he found his solitary self and his own desolation reflected in the black birds. The series was published in book form in 1986 and his career continued for only another six years. What happened to him after Ravens? Did photography ever provide a solution to his isolation and solitude? After the completion of Ravens, Fukase began photographing himself in the 1990’s. He created several series of self-portraits, including BUKUBUKU (1991) and Private Scenes (1990-1991). He obsessively photographed himself to the point of being conscious that it was “almost a disease”.9 And when he eventually grew bored of self-portraits in 1992, the subject he returned to was the ravens, just four months before he would have that fateful fall.

I got tired of this series, so at present I'm photographing crows. I am shooting the crows with a 1,000 millimeter telephoto lens every day between 4:30 and 5:30 pm when they return to their nest, from the veranda of my office. At the same time, I am doing line drawings, and I am thinking of somehow combining the crows and the line drawings. I'll probably make black-and-white composite photographs first and add color drawing afterward.10

Those drawings have been recovered only recently. They consist of around one thousand card-sized prints that have been drawn over by hand. Most of the images are of ravens in flight and, given the use of a 1,000 millimeter telephoto lens, each image only shows a single bird. It appears as if Fukase used the telephoto lens to trim out other ravens even when they were flying in a flock, so that only one was captured in each frame. A note discovered in his archive describes his process of taking these photographs:

I’ve been living my days for the past half a year using a Nikon F3 with a motor drive to photograph ravens going back to their nest in Meiji Shrine. I was just killing time.

It is chilling to imagine him perched on his balcony, peering through a telephoto lens, every single day for half a year. People stand in front of the mirror to see themselves every morning before going to work. Fukase did the same through the telephoto lens of his camera. It was no longer the case that Fukase saw himself reflected in the ravens; he had become a raven.

In his last years Fukase not only drew over his raven photographs but also produced drawings. Some of them depict ravens, and others are simply pieces of paper that are blacked out with spiralling lines, but all of them share a certain primitiveness. They could perhaps be understood as random scribbles if there were only a few of them, but in fact hundreds of them have survived. Moreover, recently uncovered negatives indicate that Fukase attempted to juxtapose such drawings with his self-portraits, suggesting that he considered them a part of his oeuvre. The fierce impetus of the lines of the drawings superimposed onto his self portraits suggest the self-destruction of all that Fukase had built in his life. It is an ending so morbid, and so unspeakably solitary that it is difficult to look at directly. Spirals have no end; they continue for eternity. In these whorls one feels the gaze of the ravens. It is as if the bird with the eyes that are difficult to locate, is staring at us. The more intensely black the drawing, and the more intense the spirals, the croaking voices of that black bird begin to resound, louder and louder. If there was a beginning to this solitude, then it is in this book, Ravens. 

1 Yūgi which should read Homo Ludens.
2 Camera Mainichi, January 1975, Mainichi Shimbunsha
3 100 Photographers. Profiles and Photographs, 1973, Mainichi Shimbunsha
4 Camera Mainichi, August 1982, Mainichi Shimbunsha
5 Camera Mainichi, January 1975, Mainichi Shimbunsha
6 Camera Mainichi, November 1982, Mainichi Shimbunsha
7 Camera Mainichi, November 1982, Mainichi Shimbunsha
8 Camera Mainichi, November 1976, Mainichi Shimbunsha
9 Nippon Camera, March 1992, Mainichi Shimbunsha
10 Aperture No.129, Fall 1992


Text 'Solitude' by Tomo Kosuga from 'Ravens' by Masahisa Fukase, published May 2017.