solitude of ravens


Yoko Wanibe was married to the photographer, Masahisa Fukase and from the moment they met, his gaze never left her. Here is Yoko. Here is Yoko again. Here is Yoko once more. Fukase took thousands of photographs of Yoko over their relationship: there are years where he photographed almost nothing else. He loved her fiercely, possessively, and he did not know anything else about himself but to record this truth. Yoko later said that her marriage to Fukase was punctuated by, “…suffocating dullness, interspersed by violent and near suicidal flashes of excitement.”

Fukase was a tremendously gifted photographer. His photographs are arresting, weighted with a pure, articulate, and tactile vision that is hard to look away from. One of his early body of works, Kill the Pigs, consist of macabre photographs taken during repeated visits to a Tokyo slaughterhouse (this collection also includes staged portraits of Yoko, which heightens the unease).  There is something troubling about his photographs—you feel like with every photo, he’s taking something from the world and rearranging it in his image, often in disturbing ways.

One morning, while her husband was away, Yoko packed her things and left. It was 1976. She did it to regain a sense of herself, to reassert her agency, away from the suffocating gaze of her husband. Her leaving was a deep blow to Fukase, and he spiralled into a deep depression that would last many years. Though he remarried not long after, he never truly recovered from this loss.

He produced one major body of work in this period, collected in a photobook and exhibition titled Solitude of Ravens. It is gloomy, foreboding, and singular in its precise articulation of pain. Most of the photographs are dark, grainy, and feature broad-winged ravens, in flight or at rest. Ravens are common in Japan and, as in the West, they are a harbinger of despair. It’s a difficult work to grapple with: the felt vision is so overwhelming that the truth of them is lost somewhere. Fukase belongs solidly in the post-war Japanese photographic tradition—a contemporary of Daido Moriyma and Shomei Tomatsu, his photography often worked at a wound that his generation felt never healed following Japan’s defeat in the war. But where other photographers, such as Moriyama and his contemporaries of the Provoke school, transcribed their sense of loss upon the built world of post-industrial Japan, Fukase preferred to work obliquely, speaking not so much in a language to come as in a language no one but himself really spoke. In the forward to the photobook collection of the work, Akira Hasegawa writes, “Masahisa Fukase’s work can be deemed to have reached its supreme height; it can also be said to have fallen to its greatest depth. The solitude revealed in this collection of images is sometimes so painful that we want to avert our eyes from it.”

Whether Solitude of Ravens is an articulation of the post-industrial ennui felt by his generation or his own personal statement of loss following his divorce, one thing is clear: the world he depicts is a nightmare world that resists easy viewing. At the end of the project in 1982 Fukase wrote that he had “become a raven”.

Fukase’s depression would last until the summer of 1992, when, as he was leaving his favourite bar in Shinjuku, he fell down a flight of stairs and landed on his head. The fall caused considerable brain damage and he lived out the rest of his years in an institution, unable to speak or move. He died in 2012, after almost twenty years of silence. Yoko, who had remarried soon after their divorce, would visit him once a month during this period. She has said, “with a camera in front of his eye, he could see, not without. He remains a part of my identity, that’s why I still visit him.”