Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens is a classic of the photobook genre and was recently reissued by Mack. The narrative is a little bit frightening, a little bit forlorn, a little bit mysterious, and incredibly beautiful and moving.
I picked this up thanks to Alec Soth’s recommendation on The Observers. He called it “the single best photographic sequence I’ve ever encountered.” And I find it hard to disagree, and not only because I don’t know a whole helluva lot about photobook sequencing or reading photobook sequences. The book is just incredibly striking, moving, soulful.
Fukase opens the book with, unsurprisingly, a series of photographs of ravens: singly, waving, hello/goodbye, then flying off, to join a small group that turns into a flock, flies away, into the night. There is a blurry landscape at dusk, some blurry photos of a few people and then a crowd, a group of schoolgirls waiting in a bus shelter, then more blurry landscapes, taken at night. Then back to ravens: a flock on a pier, disguised as ducks on a seam covered lake at dawn with the boatman guiding his passenger to the farther shore, fluttering around a fence, sanding on a half submerged pier in the snow, a single bird with its head buried in the snow-is it dead? Bird footprints in the snow, another single bird, lying probably dead in the snow. Then, suddenly, a cat appears. We’ve disturbed it, and it glares up at us. We’ve disturbed its dinner: some black snow and bits of feathers litter the space at its feet. We leave the cat and find a naked, cherubic woman, lying naked on her side, eyes closed, the wrinkles in her chin make it look like she’s about to cry, and what does she have to do with the grotesque pile of some kind of dead fish on the next page, or the remains of some black bird, tied to a pole and flapping in the breeze.
It goes on like this, though the naked woman is the only clearly-defined portrait-type photograph of a human until the very end, when a small photo of what looks like a homeless person with a large, dark cloak flapping behind it appears as a sort of signature or coda.
Two essays appear at the end. The first, “Ravens” by Akira Hasegawa explains the work as an expression of Fukase’s “incompatibility with everything in daily life” and inability to “find compatibility or harmony in his relationships with women or with his close friends,”* and appeared in the original printing. The second, “Solitude” by Tomo Kosuga is more of a biography of Fukase, that explains Ravens similarly, in terms of solitude and withdrawal from the world, largely due to his inability to participate in anything that wasn’t mediated by the camera, including a decade long marriage to the subject of his first book, Yohko. Of their marriage, Yohko wrote “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.”** And he ended is life shooting ravens with a 1000mm lens on a Nikon F5, painting on some of the resulting photographs, and making thousands of self portraits that he drew little mandala-looking things on.
You almost have to feel a little bit sorry for the guy, though from the little bit I know about Japanese culture in the mid- and late-20th Century, I don’t think he was alone in his solitude and obsession. See, for example, Otaku culture, though don’t take my word for it, as I don’t really know much of anything about Japanese culture.
Overall, Ravens earns a solid 4 stars.
The 2017 edition from Mack Books, is beautifully presented, as expected, and it’s still available direct from Mack and at various third parties. And if you’re not familiar with The Observers, the site features photobook recommendations from professional photographers and creatives, and it has sent me rushing to find copies of various books more than once. At time of writing, I’m thankful that they’re on holiday…
*Hasegawa, Akira, “Ravens,” in Fukase, Masahisa Ravens. Mack Books, 2017. p. 133
**Quoted in Tomo Kosuga, “Solitude,” in Fukase, Masahisa Ravens. Mack Books, 2017. p. 137