Masahisa Fukase’s ‘Solitude of Ravens’ at Michael Hoppen Gallery

I was a late visitor to this exhibition, as often is the case with life, other matters seem to always get in the way, but I’m extremely glad that I made that visit.

Fukase is one of the most celebrated photographers to have worked in that halcyon period in Japanese photographic history, which began in the early 1960’s and ran for about a decade. Though he was a contemporary of Moriyama and the Provoke photographers his work was never part of the exclusive and highly influential club. His work (in Ravens) shared some of the aesthetic, the grainy black and white, blur and off kilter composition, however it was tighter in the final edits, telling a more coherent and far more personal story than say Takuma Nakahira’s For a Language to Come or Moriama’s Bye Bye Photography, both of which are as much about photography as they are about the photographer and their subject matter.

Ravens’ (shot between 1976 and 1982) is a love story, a melancholy love story told by a broken man whose wife has divorced him after his heavy drinking and bouts of debilitating depression eroded their relationship. It is a love that is both tragic and destructive. In the case of the former: it is unrequited due to her absence; in the later the obvious obsession he has for her imprisons him in his grief and compounds his increasing loneliness.

The Ravens, a bird that is omnipresent on Fukase’s home island of Hokkaido serves as on obvious symbol for Yoko (his wife). Where ever he looks there are Ravens, and so, there is Yoko. One can imagine him stalking them with his camera only to have them fly away, but not to far – just enough to remain in view – jut enough to remain out of reach, to taunt him. There are other images in the work: blurred landscapes, blizzard swept landscapes, shadowy figures on roads to nowhere and women: a naked masseuse, young ladies with raven black windswept hair, a surly cat giving a sideways look of contempt that only cats can muster, the black abstract shape of a jet in flight – I’m sure he longed to take that flight to get away – but he knew it would have been a useless gesture, he could never run from what was haunting him. But most of all there are Ravens: flying, roosting, in detail and dead.

If one could draw a literary comparison to this work Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven would be the place to start. Both Fukase and Poe’s protagonist have endure the loss of their beloved wife, although in the case of Poe’s anonymous character his Lenore was robbed of her life. In each case both men were left alone in the torment of longing and of course they were haunted by a Raven a harbinger of what would be – nevermore.

Fukase’s personal story continued on its tragic arch, in 1992 after a heavy drinking session he fell and suffered a head injury that would leave him in a coma for 20 years. He eventually died in 2012.

If it is the case that an artist must suffer for the art – then Fukase was issued with more than his fair share of pain and torment. But what a rich vain of raw fuel this provided him. This is quite possibly the most poetic body of photographic work ever produced and while anyone familiar with it cannot be anything but moved by its solemn beauty its is sad to think of the suffering endured by the man who created it.

Ultimately any artworks success must be measured against its ability to communicate the almost incommunicable, by this measure Ravens is high art indeed.

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