Masahisa Fukase: The Solitude of Ravens
Nestled in the warm, study-like space upstairs at the Michael Hoppen gallery, Masahisa Fukase’s forlorn, melancholic images of ravens encircle the room. Like Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock before him, the photographer did little to improve the reputation of these tar-black birds. In folklore and popular culture they are a sign of ill omen; the flag bearers of loss and death. In Japanese mythology particularly they are supernatural beings, disruptive and dangerous. Fukase’s own tragic narrative does little to dissuade these associations.
Born in 1934 in Hokkaido, Japan, he grew up part of a nation recovering from the psychological scars of defeat after World War II. His second marriage to his wife Yōko Wanibe was intense. While she became the subject of one of his first major successes, Yōko (1978), she was unable to cope with his controlling personality and eventually divorced him in 1976. Alone and broken-hearted, he suffered heavily from depression and found solace in drink. In 1992 he fell down the stairs of his favourite bar and into a coma, a state he remained in for 20 years until he passed away.
While Kill the Pigs (1961) reflected the photographer’s grim sensibilities, his separation from Yoko resulted in the bleak, icy output that became The Solitude of Ravens (1975-82). While the exhibition title is something of a misnomer – ravens being thought to mate for life and live in groups – it shows just how much Fukase came to identify himself with these gloomy-looking birds. The raven itself is not the subject of the series but a symbol; a site of myriad references and allusions. Most telling then are not the images of monochrome flocks of birds perched in trees, but those mysterious anomalies in which the bird is absent but its imagery is evident.
One such picture, suffusing both nostalgia and foreboding, consists of three young girls on a boat overlooking the ocean. Backs to the camera, their slick black hair is whipped into fluttering tufts by the wind, conjuring the raven’s figurative presence. Darkness dominates the foreground. The picture underexposed and their faces obscured, feelings of loss and remembrance predominate. Like Poe’s infamous poem The Raven, in which the narrator is visited by the titular bird while lamenting the death of his cherished Lenore, the photo is an ode to lost love, evoking the same mournful, somewhat animistic associations. Arguably, the raven of the series is a symbolic stand-in for Yōko; conjuring the memory of her and being the focus of Fukase’s photography until he remarried in 1982.
It has been suggested that Fukase’s work is social as well as personal, embodying the turbulences of post-war Japan. The final shot of the exhibition – a flock of the birds with their wings outstretched against a dark sky like a squadron of warplanes – certainly fits this reading of invasion and the final defeat of the nation. That Fukase might also be interested in drawing attention to environmental issues is evident in a shot of a bare branch lying across a backdrop of smoke-belching chimneys. But, as Michael Hoppen argues, the series is first and foremost “a personal lament reflecting the darkened vision of the photographer.” His worldview had become increasingly pessimistic and doom-laden and the stark imagery of Ravens is testament to that. As you view his images you can perceive his sense of self disintegrating. On finishing the series, he even stated that he had now “become a raven.”
– Daniel Pateman
Masahisa Fukase: The Solitude of Ravens @ Michael Hoppen Gallery until 23 April
Erimo Cape, 1976 © Masahisa Fukase Archives
Daniel Pateman studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications. He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.