Jesse’s Book Review – Ravens by Masahisa Fukase
It has been a bit quiet on the site as things have been busy, but Jesse decided to use the time to tackle one of the truly great Japanese photobooks, Ravens by Masahisa Fukase. And it is well worth the read. Check it out.
“…art is made by the alone for the alone… The reward is not fame or success but intoxication”
For “The Incurable Egoist” could there be another more germane quote? What could be said of a man whose wife gives him this title before leaving him after ten years of marriage…and whose only rebuttal in return is an acknowledgement to the paradoxical situation their relationship was contingent on him having an accessible model to photograph. She is quoted as saying the photographs of her depicting their ten year marriage (included in the book Yohko) were unquestionably about him.
This accounts for the reward of intoxication since the fame and success that came from this book would not be reaped since a fall coming out of an upstairs bar left him comatose for twenty years till his passing in 2012. The first part of the quote would account for the book on review here, one that was considered the greatest photo book of the last 20 years…Ravens.
This makes up the fourth reprint, the first print was in 1986 by Sokyusha in Japanese and English, the second was in 1991 by Bedford Arts only in English, the third was in 2008 by Rat Hole Gallery, and now in 2017 Mack released it with the original Japanese afterword and new English and Japanese text.
Going back to the quote, the fame for this internationally really didn’t catch on till his death in 2012 that followed with two high profile exhibits in 2015 leading to the reprint featured here. I was lucky enough to catch the Diesel show in Shibuya and still represents my favorite photo exhibit in recent memory. I’d tell you to run and buy it now while you still can, but with his popularity now, I imagine periodic reprints akin to another Japanese classic in Araki’s Sentimental Journey. STILL if you don’t have this just click the new tab window and order it now and come back to this to get more justifications why that was a smart move.
Capturing what I felt in 2010 when with gloves on I was shown the Sokyusha first edition of Ravens was akin to receiving my first roll back I shot with my Ricoh GR1s when I began photography…an intoxication. It was very much that for Fukase with Ravens. It was storied, how after his wife left him he trained back home to Hokkaido and noticed the ravens at these empty stations. It was intoxication that made him get off and devote his time to shooting these birds in the north, expressing as ugly as possible his own self conceit through these creatures, the very same creatures that centuries before Edgar Allen Poe used for very similar sentiments.
The release saw a fairy critical praise but the international fame and success never came. Which for an artist like Fukase who’s earlier photo projects included a book on pig slaughter houses, surely wasn’t a concern.
With this, it then becomes essential to truly soak up the depths of solitude to be regurgitated into this book. It is like he just gained this sense to only see the true ugliness around him that paradoxically becomes the beauty. The crows, the smoke stacks, the overweight nude masseurs, the cat greedily tearing apart fish scraps…it is hell on earth. Even the few people he captures take on the same aesthetic, take for instance the homeless man on page 125 who is shrouded in a dirty old sleeping bag that takes on the shape of a raven’s wing. The looming shadow of a dead tree extends itself on to him reinforcing the ever present darkness.
Personal favorite is the very moment a dump truck drops garbage into a trash site. The dust cloud from the dirt makes for the dense gray tonalities in the middle of the frame, while random debris flies about. The claws of the truck dominate the upper third while the wire fence makes up the bottom third making for a compressed feeling of chaotic anxiety int he middle.
But ultimately it is the ravens! Fukase spent so much time with them he learned their patterns, nesting routines, and various methods to capture them. One that this edition points out is how he used a flashlight to get the glow effect on their eyes. He shoots them individually, in groups, details of them…essentially it all. The group shots conjure images of the last painting of Van Gogh who’s last painting featured ravens over an empty field foreboding his death from insanity. Fukase would have 6 more years before his fall after the release of Ravens, yet the sentiment was symbolically there.
For the alone by the alone. I’d give a link, but depending on your locale it is best to just put this in Google and with shipping figure out what is the most economical way of purchasing this. However, it should be around 110 USD. Stock should be running low, so better to do it sooner than later…but with such a masterpiece I am sure there will be more re-prints. Value and rare-ness of editions aside, the new Mack edition is better than the other English release that among a lot of things didn’t understand the Japanese virtue of presentation. Get this book.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
You can more of his work and passions at the following places:
Want to read Jesse’s other great reviews? Then click here to go to the archives.