Masahisa Fukase "The Solitude of Ravens" - Weekly Discussion #20

Discussion in 'Casual Photo Conversations' started by lex_jenkins, Apr 6, 2014.

  1. I apologize in advance for not providing a single specific photo or even a small selection of photos for this discussion. The nature of the subject seemed to defy all of my efforts to narrow down the selection. And last week's Brassai discussion seemed to fare well as a general observation of his work along with specific examples provided by participants. I also apologize for the length. To paraphrase Twain, I didn't have time to write it shorter. --LJ

    It is difficult to discuss an individual photograph from "The Solitude of Ravens" apart from the context of Masahisa Fukase's life itself as well as his best known artist's monograph, described in 2010 as "his most powerful work, and a kind of epitaph for a life that has been even sadder and darker than the photographs suggest." That same year the British Journal of Photography cited "Ravens" as the best photo book in the past 25 years.
    And it is equally difficult to discuss the book in context because it is damned expensive, even in the third printing softcover version.
    Yet, like the best music albums, with each track carefully arranged to convey the musicians' desired intentions, it helps to get a sense of the flow of the images in the book.
    There's a small sampling of a few of the most familiar photos attached to The Guardian article. But those don't encompass the full range of images included in the book, not all of which are of ravens yet remain faithful to the sense of alienation that seems to reflect Fukase's inner life during that era.
    For those reasons, I'd suggest viewing this short 3:30 video, which offers a page-through view of "The Solitude of Ravens". The video itself is a bit more artsy than the usual page-through videos. (
    The photographs vary in technique and subject matter, adhering only to a general core aesthetic of gritty, contrasty black and white. They also seem to show the influence of the "Provoke" era of Japanese artistic photography, which often showed a deliberate disregard for conventional concerns about technically correct or optimal printing technique. Some photos appear to employ conventional printing techniques. In others, Fukase appeared to have enlarged a tiny portion of the negative to emphasize the grain (and, perhaps, to eliminate unwanted or distracting objects). Still others show obvious dodging/burning halos and glowing outlines almost comparable to Mackie Lines.
    Out of context one can imagine the unimaginative drudge of a judge schooled in conventional camera club or salon techniques marking up these "mistakes" in red crayon. Yet in the context of the Provoke era such techniques were part of an aesthetic that appeared in prints by Moriyama and other associates. But do those technically "flawed" photos stand on their own, apart from any context or knowledge of the photographer?
    There is no official website, and many of his photos are reproduced on blogs and websites with links that may be broken a year from now. One of the better analyses, published in 2006 on the Photo Book Guide website, has already fallen off the active web and is stored courtesy of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.
    For a sampling of the variety of photos displayed in the book, see the Google image cache, most of which are from "Ravens", juxtaposed against a few from his other less somber works.
    "The Solitude of Ravens" seems a curious translation of "Karasu" (which may translate as crow or raven), the original title. Curious, in part, because corvidae - ravens and crows - are social birds. Yet almost every culture has imbued the crow and raven icons with similarly eerie mythical characteristics. We choose to disregard the social nature of the real crow or raven and characterize him as a harbinger, an avatar, impish and troublesome at best, a fearsome omen at worst.
    Perhaps the publisher felt the English speaking viewers needed some help in interpreting the monograph that became Fukase's best known work. The photographer could not speak for himself to enlighten or appease curious fans. He spent the last 20 years of his life in a coma. Reportedly his most faithful visitor was the woman whose decision to divorce Fukase had contributed to the darkness that resulted in his most notable oeuvre.

    Additional notes:
    While pop culture has embraced Fukase as the iconic lonely tortured artist, the role assigned to him by posterity seems to have overlooked his whimsical side, which produced the photo books "Bukubuku" (Bubbles) of self portraits in the bathtub; and "Sasuke, My Dear Cat" and "The Strawhat Cat" of his pet. One wonders whether - had he not spent the entire web generation unconscious - he might have embraced social media, posting amusing selfies and cat pix as many of us do.
    Pop culture allusions:
    • Twa Corbies - traditional Scottish folk song.
    • At the end of the official video for Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You", ravens or crows can be seen around utility pole. Fitting imagery for Hope Sandoval's weeping willow vocals.
    "Masahisa Fukase's Ravens: the best photobook of the past 25 years? Brooding and shatteringly lonely, the Japanese photographer's series on ravens has been hailed as masterpiece of mourning" --The Guardian, May 2010
    Utata article on Fukase
    "Sasuke, My Dear Cat" by Fukase
    Video page-through of "Ravens"
    "Bukubuku" (self portraits in the water)
    Until last autumn I'd only encountered the name Masahisa Fukase on and elsewhere, usually in reference to generalized discussions about styles or themes. But I didn't remember having seen his photos before September 15, 2013. I remember the date because that's when another photo.netter remarked on the similarity of one of my themes to Fukase's.
    I don't know how I managed not to have seen his photos.
    The effect was jarring, like looking into a mirror and seeing, not my own reflection, but myself as a ghosted image of another artist's work.
    A couple of years ago, feeling stuck in a rut, I had begun to explore a theme that was new to me. I called it Skaiku, as a play on words (sky and haiku). I took the first photos in that theme on June 20, 2012, unaware of Fukase's death in June 2012 after 20 years in a coma.
  2. This is not so much a comment as an Additional Additional note to the above:
    You can find a decent in-book sampling of Masahisa Fukase's work in the usually reasonably priced (used) Black Sun: The Eyes of Four.
    And, his Ravens, for me always brings to mind Robert Franks's book, Flamingos. They are more different than alike, despite similarities in style and the use of birds. The cover shot of Flamingos gives a clue. See some of its contents here. Two photographers coming from very different lifeways converging and diverging ... (though the Franks book is nowhere near as good as Ravens)
  3. It's dark and depressing. The technical issues I can attribute to the artist. Who's to say what is right or wrong in this context? I suppose it was a good subject to come upon on such a dreary morning as we are having but none of it makes me want to look further.
    Rick H.
  4. As a biologist, I've always been fascinated by the journey of the individual within a sea of social conspecifics -- the abundance of gametes flying, walking, swimming through the biosphere, guided by behavior programs. I often ponder the meaning of our experiential world in this context -- indeed the significance of our very existence, if it has any.
    I suppose it's in this context that I might appreciate Fukase's work on the ravens. I find his photos of individual ravens that have fallen to be particularly thought-provoking. Burned into my mind, but unfortunately not photographed by me during my time in Houston, is the somewhat common image of a fallen grackle whose body is speckled in feces -- the individual who failed to survive and literally fell out of the population, instantly becoming completely insignificant.
    Also ingrained into my mind is a protracted scene I witnessed, in which migrating orcas munched on sea birds of some species (too distant to identify) as they swam along the coast. Their violent disappearance, one by one, representing the culmination of a long survival struggle from egg to adult, created little more than a second or two commotion as they became individual bites in another species' meal. And they appeared not to be missed.
    I can't say that I take away much from Fukase's raven collection, other than that they are thought provoking. But they are that!
  5. A couple of years ago, feeling stuck in a rut, I had begun to explore a theme that was new to me. I called it Skaiku, as a play on words (sky and haiku). I took the first photos in that theme on June 20, 2012, unaware of Fukase's death in June 2012 after 20 years in a coma.​
    I find it fascinating when there are "coincidental" occurrences like that. I have to wonder about stuff like the collective unconscious and general "bigger than us"-ness.
    This yet another very interesting study on this weekly forum. Thank you, Lex for introducing me to a photographer that is totally new to me.
    It is interesting that many times the best art springs from darkness of the soul. Art is a way to express what we cannot say in words to my way of thinking.
  6. ... viewers needed some help in interpreting the monograph ...
    An all too common attitude, and one which, I hope I can say without being misunderstood, infuriates me beyond measure. Photography is a visual medium and can speak for itself! Please please please, future “Weekly Discussion” posters, write “My chosen picture is this [Link]” and if necessary “Background info on the artist is here [Link]” – and then stop!
    I had not heard of Masahisa Fukase and am grateful for the opportunity to view some of his work. Having read the written introduction, I was none the wiser, but having viewed the video, although it is of course a travesty to go through an art book at flip-book speed, I have some sense of the work, and how both possible titles could be relevant, the literal “Ravens” and also “The Solitude of Ravens”, the loneliness of someone in the middle of a crowd. It figures (but is not necessary to know) that the photographer produced this work in the aftermath of a divorce. The printing technique is in the service of the mood of the work, if it were to give camera club judges heart failure, this could only be a good thing! A most interesting selection!
  7. Lex, thanks for the heartfelt and personalized introduction, your willingness not only to give us lots of info and references, but also to dig into your own relationship to Fukase and reasons for feeling the kinship you do. If photography is at all about sharing and communication, you've addressed that fluently.
    My own take is that these photos are visual in a somewhat specialized way. Because they are so much a look inward. I see them mostly as metaphorical even when they are representational. While they clearly are, they also seem not to be pictures *of* something. It's as if they emanate from within a mind and imagination and sort of give the psyche some form, some description. They don't seem to "capture." They don't seem hunted. They don't seem waited for. They aren't pleasing. They're not mementos. If they are decisive moments, the timing is a bit beyond the ticking of a clock or setting of an alarm, beyond what we would normally categorize in the gaps of seconds, minutes, or instants. They're not serendipitous.
  8. I have to absorb Lex's introduction a bit more, but especially attempt to understand the artist's approach and feelings more fully. My immediate reaction upon seeing his series of images (or what few I have been able to see to date) is that they are an expression of his torment and perhaps created as much as a personal catharsis as a project of art.
    I guess that if I were to try to express to someone how dispair and pain felt to me while being limited to the potential of expression contained via a two dimensional artwork, I would look to something similar to the symbolism and imagery of Fukase, wherein its technical imperfections also convey a significant part of that message.
    Not too related to Fukase's photo essays, perhaps, but his loneliness and despair are similar in some ways to the loneliness of Coleridge, which apparently influenced his 18th century poem "The Ancient Mariner".
  9. Thanks Lex for this fine choice. The weekly discussion is getting more and more interesting, as I see it.
    For me, Japanese post-war culture has always fascinated me both as concerns films, novels and surely photography and here Fukase, together with his fellow photographers in the Workshop group, Tōmatsu Shōmei, Hosoe Eikō and Moriyama Daidō and also Araki Nobuyoshi known for photos of tortured and violated women (no photos!) are the most important. They were all part of the so-called "lost generation" of artist in Japan, who's work were strongly marked by the devastation of the country during the war. Most of them, and surely, Fukase, by the end of his life, were clearly nihilists in their way of expression.

    I'm fascinated by the Ravens serie because their visual language is deeply rooted in Japanese history and culture. Not only by the choise of Ravens but also because one sees old ink paintings when looking at Fukase photos (here is Japanese panel painting and a Chinese example and another).

    Reading the personal history of Fukase and the background of how he started the Raven series, I can feel his horror and desperation of losing his wife. They are poems on loneliness and death. Great art.
  10. I never had any idea that Japanese art and culture embraced existential thought until looking at Fukase's images. The "Ravens" photographs, through their exaggerated dark tonality, seem to view life without light, thereby exposing us to nonverbal expressions of the alienation, the aloneness, of "human reality." And the "Bubuku" are not simply cute, funny images; they address choice and survival.
    Gratitude, Lex.
  11. Rick - I know that feeling. I can't explain why this particular work from Fukase connected with me. It isn't easy to like, if "like" is even the appropriate reaction. I don't even necessarily like some of my own photographs. But they're like moods, thoughts and attitudes. I don't necessarily like them, but they're mine.
    Sarah - That one phrase, "And they appeared not to be missed", may be the single most incisive observation and motivation for why we do what we do as photographers. Perhaps we choose our subjects and approaches because we don't want that moment to be missed.
    David - LOL! Had to laugh at myself: "Please please please, future “Weekly Discussion” posters, write “My chosen picture is this [Link]” and if necessary “Background info on the artist is here [Link]” – and then stop!"

    Believe me, I intended to let the photos speak for themselves. I made the mistake of over-preparing. I began taking notes for this weeks ago and accumulated so much information I couldn't figure out how to write shorter. When overnight thunderstorms this weekend kept knocking out my internet connection I just posted what I had this morning while my ISP was up without paring it down enough.

    Some images are so introspective the effect seems akin to mind reading. I can't think of a more uncomfortable form of communication than actually being able to peek inside someone's mind. Fukase's "Ravens" seems to convey that more powerfully than his self portraits.
  12. Lex, I appreciate highly the effort you have put into this and the lengthy introduction and many links, which I have all visited, and even others. This is one type of introduction to the weekly discussion. Another extreme mght be just a link to a photo. For me both extremes have their quality.
  13. For me ...
    ... this kind of photography, when done well, is not metaphorical, unless you think of demons as metaphors. There is no "this is like that." Here it is "this IS THIS," and it is terrifying or mesmerizing in-itself, not as a reference to anything else.
    It's as if all the ephemeral flavors and expressions that float in every part of one's experience, sounds, colors, fragments of intent that shimmer throughout every experience were to clot into thickness -- like the black mold that one sometimes find suddenly on one's hitherto good food. It's not about something else. It is, to the contrary, terrifying because it is right there, thick and menacing and NOT about something else.
    The technical peculiarities of these pictures are not failings, they are exactly as they should be. This clotting, this thickness is not "sharp" -- it's not smooth-grained. Demons, or mold, or rust, or old age -- or death -- are not sharp or smooth-grained, or about something else. It would be nice if they were ...
    This guy is not an ornithologist. I don't think he gave a s*** about birds. But neither are they abstract or metaphorical. They are meaty and clawed and thick and undeniable.
    Lex, as a total aside, this morning's page in my Metropolitan Museum of Art calendar is THIS picture. Dear lord!! Et tu, Walker Evans?? And at the Met??
    Made me think of you for some reason ...
  14. ... this kind of photography, when done well, is not metaphorical, unless you think of demons as metaphors. There is no "this is like that." Here it is "this IS THIS," and it is terrifying or mesmerizing in-itself, not as a reference to anything else.
    They are meaty and clawed and thick and undeniable.​
    Interesting points, Julie. So are you saying he was documenting (as opposed to alluding to) his own undeniable hell?
    I tend to think these works contain both metaphor and reality, though I completely believe that the metaphor may not have been purposeful. I don't think metaphor has to be necessarily intended but the artist to still show up. In fact, I think many times it is it's presence that informs the artists and/or the viewers of the real state of the artist's unconscious.
  15. Ravens and crows are social birds, but they are shameless in thievery, arguments, and conceits. Sufficiently depressed, and perhaps Fukase was that depressed, his pictures would then be of 'humanity', not of crows, a metaphor for how he saw us. He wasn't wrong, but like the crows we are a complex species and crows groom each other too for reasons that don't seem self-serving. Crows don't get hung up on their contradictory behaviors, their bodies lead their minds, and crows' minds unquestioningly follow their bodies, their minds shifting from one compartment to another without self-examinations, egoless in that there doesn't seem to be anything present in a crow that can examine itself across compartments. Crows respond to the world that their body is in; and their minds are completely with their bodies. A crow's mind is not a representation, abstraction, or construct. A crow knows that it is a different river every day, that is to say, its body knows and its mind reflects only its body's presence in a world that is.
    One documentary on the Golden Gate Bridge had a segment where a depressed fellow survived his fall and he described his experience. On the bridge, his body language was that of a hopeless, depressed, suicidal person. A couple approached him. He faced them and they asked him not "what's wrong?", but instead if he "could please take our picture?" He failed to see the humor of that moment (couldn't get outside of himself to see himself) and proceeded to jump. Down he went, and during his fall said that he experienced regrets and consequently shifted in air to survive. *(See Note) He survived only to find himself in very cold water with severe injuries. He then recounted how a harbor seal swam to him and kept him afloat until a rescue boat arrived, another species, a harbor seal whose mind, like a crow's, is its body, is a mind not based in representation, abstraction, or in constructs, but is the body. And the seal helped him in his distress, unlike the photo seeking tourists who had wanted a suicidal person to take of them for themselves a 'picture', a representation, an abstraction, a memorialization of themselves as a construct.
    With that all in mind, I offer that Fukase's photos under discussion can only be photos of himself as a representation, an abstraction, as a construct. Had he experienced his oneness with the world at that time in his life he would have taken pictures of other things in a different spirit, where the horse leads the cart. His photos are of a self whose cart thinks it leads the horse.
    * (Note: the fellow self-reported that he had regrets and that from regret he made his body shift. His self-reporting was wrong, was egotistical. It was his body that shifted first and his mind then followed his body, his body acted and then he experienced a feeling of regret. The mind often puts the cart before the horse when it is in fact the other way around.)
  16. Ummm...Nevermore....
  17. Amy, no, no, not documentary. This is not about him in the sense of him looking inward or of his own personal feelings somehow filling up, being projected onto, the world.
    It's a question of which way the 'power' moves. Is the picture endowed by the photographer with its meaning or force (which, to me points to metaphor); or is the photographer flooded with the "this-is!" of what he sees -- does the force overwhelm, overtake, flood into him when the eye meets the world -- which to me is what demons, gods, symbols [as opposed to metaphors] or any crescendo of what is always already there -- of being -- does. That latter is not metaphor; it is not endowed, it is discovered, in terror or in joy or anything in between. Having recently experienced grief or joy or terror will sensitize one to those kinds of events; make them bloom, but they do so in their own existant harmony or resonance, not because of the intent of the photographer.
    My idea of metaphor is something that is used to fill out something that I have 'in-mind.' That which is 'in-mind' is primary and that which I use metaphorically is subordinate to it. The metaphorical imagery is sort of second order in that it never happens 'first.'
    However, the visual (as opposed to the verbal) is often that 'first.' It doesn't need to be 'filled out' because, well, there it is. It is not endowed; it's already full.
    In religions throughout the ages, crows and ravens have been dark angels playing all sides of good and evil, creative and destructive. They "arouse in us" a spiritual response that, to my mind, is not metaphorical but invasive, immediate and visceral.
    However ... however ... I can understand that one might decide, after first impact, to then work with the idea of crows. I don't get that from what I see in Ravens, but many of the descriptions of the book use the work 'metaphor' repeatedly (I think, on reading what they say subsequently, that they misuse the word, that they should have used 'symbol' but maybe not).
    For cultural reference, HERE is an Edo period ink and gold screen of crows.
  18. Julie, I like your way of writing about this mage and how you are reading it.
    There is one question on Fukasa and his use of ravens as a metaphor that I don't understand (I'm sure there are many, in fact). Fukase being Japanese and deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and history would have been very much aware of the role of ravens in Japanese history, as you refer to it.
    I Japanese mythology, at a very early stage, a three legged raven (or crow) plays a central role. It represent the will of Heaven or divine intervention in human affairs. Mostly it intervening in a positive way, helping humans in situations of danger. When Fukasa uses the image of ravens in his personal challenges, after his wife left him, it would either be because he believes it was "Gods will" she left, or because the "three legged bird" would help him to find his way. These very dark images would then either be seen as images of the beyond divine world, represented by ravens, or be metaphors for his way out of the lost. They are probably both.
  19. The distinction between metaphor and symbol is something to consider. I, and I suspect many others, have used these words interchangeably. Very interesting, Julie.
    Anders, thanks for some of the cultural background. Very interesting stuff.
  20. Anders, in the raven photos, do the birds really look like they could be 'helper' animals by any stretch of the imagination? The harbor seal is a nice warm helper animal, and a bright inquisitive shiny eyed crow could be a helper. But that type of crow/raven isn't what Fukasa chose to present to us in his photographs.
  21. Charles, I'm of course not sure about that. I'm not sure about anything on the matter, in fact.
    I see, that most interpretations of the Raven images of Fucase, that you can find in interviews and articles, underline the immediate feeling of despair, horror and even death, that also I first of all see.
    But, given the Japanese mythology around birds, and especially ravens and crow: the three legged bird (Yatagarasu), which surely Fucase was aware of, from early childhood on, they represent as mentioned also finding solutions and being helped. The images of Fucase are horrifying to watch, but so are many of the divine forces in mythology throughout the world. The horror we see might just be the horror of the divine because of their perceived immense power over powerless humans.
    There is another interpretation, that I have found around Fukase's craven images, which refers to Fukase own experiences during the devastating war when he was a child. During the war Fukase lived on the city of Hokkaido (Northern Island of Japan), where he was born, which was bombed by enemy planes in July 1945 when he was 11 years old. The cravens in his photos were like the planes in the sky bringing death and destruction to his life in line with him losing his wife almost thirty years later, living in the same city.
  22. But Anders, and thanks for the reply, Japanese mythology around birds is dead superstition, just like those superstitions about birds are dead for the rest of the modern world. So I'm not sure that Fukase would in a good mood have taken pictures of rabbits running away from the camera and asked us to see in them the Easter bunny. If the Easter Bunny was intended, he would have in this hypothetical example, have taken pictures of their fecundity. So I take these particular works of Fucase at face value, that he was looking at crows as those uncaring creatures that pick the eyes out of our war dead and all that. From his experience as an 11 year old that your recount I would guess he was a witness to those and other horrors of war. It's not that I don't acknowledge the meanings of birds as messengers of the divine, I just don't see that here.
    Rant: the guy was clinically depressed. You get over a wife leaving pretty quickly generally speaking, and what's nice is that opens up other opportunities. You go out dating at some point, not taking pictures of the worst kind of bird in their worst moments. Sorry he felt bad, but clinically depressed people should get talk therapy if the depression continues for an extended period of time. Mourning is one thing, it has resolution. Resolution delayed: no one should go through a loss without a lot of help if it last too long, what too long is only the bereaved would know.
  23. Charles, a bit of a digression, but your comments on depression remind me of a scene in Moscow on the Hudson. Not a great movie, but it has some great scenes and dialog. There's a scene where Robin Williams' character is debating a friend over the issues of sadness, depression, and loss of family. And he says something I believe resonates with many folks who have experienced loss and depression:
    "When I was in Russia, I did not love my life...
    ...but I loved my misery.
    You know why?
    Because it was my misery.
    I could hold it.
    I could caress it.
    I loved my misery."
    That's something no one can take away from you. Misery, unlike happiness, can never be taken away by force or changes in fortune. It's yours and you own it for as long as you want it. And many creative people do channel their misery into creative output. Who's to say that's wrong? Who decides that "happiness" or any alternative to depression and misery is a better fuel or motivator for creativity?
  24. ""Japanese mythology around birds is dead superstition, just like those superstitions about birds are dead for the rest of the modern world.""

    Not more dead or superstition than the belief in the force of innumerable number of representations of Gods, divinities hanging on walls and standing on tables throughout the world. I still have a horseshoe hanging over my main door. It might brings luck !
    Anyway, what is at stake is not necessarily a strong belief in in the "reality" (bad term, I admit) such mythological history of a country, but the use of the visual language which is connected to it. By using cravens, Fukase communicated to his people using a shared world of symbols and metaphors. Shared culture is not the same as share belief, necessarily. A little like you, if you are American, might use balled eagles and other fellow Americans would know what you are talking about, or I would use a cock or a couple of sitting lions to show strenght and national pride. All that is very much alive as visual language. Its called culture and artists like Fukase finds their visual language by drawing on it.
  25. Good points Lex and as to who decides I don't know. For me at one point it was necessity that decided for me and I came to see that darker former period in my life as having been necessary too.
    Anders, still, if a crow can mean many things then its narrow use such as I see in Fukase, may be narrow use in order to exclude those other cultural associations. Also, when I say dead superstitions, I'm referring to modern people who though they may participate in ritual and magical thinking, know it's, well, you know, and I assume so did he. Or did he? Or is it really so dead? It is hard to know what is going on inside a person when they work with symbolic material. That material has a life of its own, presents to us for awhile and can both trouble and nourish. These crows here aren't nourishing ones to my way of thinking, but there can be an elixir there if, like when around real animals, we're quiet enough to just listen.
  26. Superstitions never die. They just take on the respectable mantle of fandom and the artistic devotee, who are seldom more than a feather's breadth away from becoming true believers.
    Symbolic and iconic motifs appear as cultural allusions at least as often as they are statements of belief. Those allusions may be facile (like Madonna's trendy "kabbalah bracelet"), ironic (like me wearing a Madonna t-shirt to synagogue) or absurdist (the cantor singing "Like a Prayer").
    The allusions may also be the earnest, if fanciful, riffs and remixes of borrowed cultural influences so popular among Japanophile youth, including a mutant character from the Marvel X-Men comic book universe named Karasu, whose powers include astral projection and psychic manipulation. Most of the kids I've met who are fans of Japanese influenced pop culture don't actually believe that stuff in the sense of it as a religion; but they share the fervent ardor of the Lord of the Rings buff who can cite every nuance of the Tolkien universe and bore you with the many non-canonical offenses of Peter Jackson's movies, just as readily as a street corner evangelist can scattergun gospel quicker than you can say "Um, okay, thanks?" or "Amen, brother!".
    What gives these motifs perseverance and power isn't merely the fervent faith of the true believer, but the uncomfortable moments of apophenia, the "odd synchronicity", that occurs so often among the non-believers, the agnostic and the dabblers, that give pause and a moment of reflection to ponder the differences between mere coincidence and a common thread.
    Perhaps it's mere irony that among the many myths is the karasu-tengu, said by some folklorists to be the spirits of those who were arrogant in life, sentenced to a crowlike manifestation for their hubris to learn, and to teach, humility to others.
    I do wonder what dreams and visions Fukase had during his 20 year slumber.
  27. Nice bit of writing there Lex, reminds me of parts of Mike Davis City of Quartz.
  28. Coming in late, but immensely grateful to Lex for introducing me to the Solitude of Ravens and especially to the "Provoke" school.
    I think the only image of Masahisa Fukase that I had seen before was the first one in the Guardian article.
    It's probably still my favorite, but they are all worth careful regard.
  29. Good thread, Lex. I have been following the thread since its inception. Although I haven't had any new insights to contribute, I have enjoyed reading the opinions of those who have. I am quite intrigued by the pictures myself, and they do seem to be very evocative of the kind of dark mood that can fall upon any of us and color our perceptions of the world for a time--one hopes for not too long a period of time.
  30. So a question that arises is if these photos are to be taken as a psychological reflection, or emanation, or catharsis, or expression, or exclamation, how is that so? What do I see in the photos that suggests this, other than the symbolism or metaphor or the subject matter of ravens.
    I notice generally a lack of detail in favor of bolder imagery, often silhouetted figures. There are big shapes, big patches of black, and a lot of negative space in some of the more closeup shots. I'd say they tend to be more textural than fine-detail-oriented. This leads me toward abstraction. Often the images feel as much like Rorschach tests as like pics of ravens. Considering these are flying creatures, there's no lightness that I would expect from bird pictures but rather a sense of heaviness and gravity to many of them. I am very aware of body. In THIS ONE, he's not afraid to allow detail to disappear into dark shadows and the people, darkly dressed and as darkly exposed, could almost substitute for a bunch of ravens we'd expect to see lined up on the telephone wires, which does not happen in favor of the sole fellow in the foreground who stands sentry as the people, instead, gather as darkened and unidentified beings.
    Wondering what others see in the photos that piques their darker interpretations and feelings.
  31. That same year the British Journal of Photography cited "Ravens" as the best photo book in the past 25 years.​
    If that was in 2010, it would take us all the way back to 1985. I'd have to ask what criteria The British Journal of Photography based their opinion on, because there were some brilliant photographers working during those twenty-five years between 1985 and 2010. And some of them are still working today. Tom Millea, who should be a national treasure, and who is one of the best print makers on the planet, comes immediately to mind. Some of Millea's dark visions and photographic insights into the human heart make Fukase look like a disturbed child who uses only one color in a coloring book.
    I'll keep my comments brief. Despite some admiration for Ravens, my mind and eyes tire of looking at an almost endless series of black blobs. The book is entirely too obscure to be called the "best" of anything. Fukase strips ravens of their detail and personalities (they're anything but solitary), and turns them into a product or projection of his own little personal type of insanity.
    In my opinion, Fukase and his book are both epic failures.
  32. One of the things that was being rejected in this historical period of photography during which Ravens was made (the 70s or so) was the preciousness of art photography -- in particular the immaculate, "perfect" print as well as the tidily moral messaging from a "properly" artistic (read, "painterly") tasteful distance. Ruscha went one way (and the New Topographic group), Klein (and the New York School) another, and the Japanese (taking some from Klein) another. And thank god for them. They stopped trying to force photography into a tutu and began to really mine its native strengths. To the horror of all those who learned "art" from looking at calendars.
  33. ...this historical period of photography during which Ravens was made (the 70s or so)...​
    I think Ravens was published in 1986.
  34. "Wondering what others see in the photos that piques their darker interpretations and feelings."​
    I've been pondering that not only for the past few days but for the past few months since realizing, as Steve Gubin noted, the "odd synchronicity" between some of my themes, and those of Fukase, whose work I'd never studied before last autumn.

    My interpretations of Fukase's photographs are almost inextricable from my own photos. I don't know where the line is, if there is one, between the two. So by trying to interpret his photos I may seem to be merely talking about my own, which isn't my intention. But it gives me a handle on the subject.

    I see a sense of theatricality in some of Fukase's photos, particularly in his earlier studies of his wife, Yohko. In particular, this photo and this one are reminiscent of 19th century live theater footlights, which for the past 100 years have generally been reserved only for special effects and popcorn-tossing melodramas in American theaters. Others, like this one and this one, show a sense of staging and knack for absurdity. She gave great face and he seemed inspired to put her face to use in photos with a touch of that theatricality and absurdity.

    Later, in Ravens, some of his photos continue to feature the human figure. But it's no longer with a sense of engagement or connection. He's no longer the director or co-creator of a production featuring his photogenic leading lady. Now he's the narrator of a shadow play, showing us faceless silhouetted puppets and stick figures representing alienation, isolation amid the crowd, and, finally, despair in this character sitting amid garbage, apparently holding a beer can, a jester with his bauble.

    But Ravens isn't the work of a humorless man. There is a certain humor throughout the work - seen in the inexplicable presence of the grotesque looking cat - although it is more the humor of the classical sort described as the four temperaments by Greek and Roman physicians. Fukase's humor was bitter, choleric and melancholic. The nearly featureless human figures scattered throughout Ravens are his version of Hamlet's play within a play, presented with the same sense of bitterness and simmering anger to offset the despair. But there's no king's conscience to be caught and faulted. The photographer knows he's responsible for his own losses.
  35. In my opinion ...
    This is not shadow play; the pictures are flat. He has removed (almost) all space. We are put at the interface with no-space between. There's no "engagement or connection" because separation has been obliterated, defaced, replaced, possessed. The flat, space-less inter-face (which has no inter) is what's given.
  36. Oh, I agree, Julie. That's what I meant by a shadow play. Unfortunately I don't have any of my own photos from a favorite local theater that incorporates shadow puppets within many productions, but it's usually done behind a scrim with the shadows projected onto the translucent surface.
    As this local theater uses the technique, the shadow figures are usually avatars for the other main characters in the piece played by live actors. The shadow play within the play reduces the characters to caricatures and their actions - usually their foibles - to the essence, eliminating nuance of expression, flattening space and occasionally compressing time. Often it's used as a segue between large gaps in time; other times as a Greek chorus, with the caricatures of the characters commenting on themselves; occasionally as foreshadowing or playing out alternate realities.
    The shadow play device was used by Coppola in his version of Dracula, during the scene with "Prince Vlad" in London seducing Mina, in which can be seen a glimpse of a shadow play echoing the earlier depiction of the movie's opening battle scene, which itself was highly stylized and silhouetted to flatten space. A shadow play also appears in the original video for Cat Power's "Nude as the News", but in a cut-up form that alludes to the theme of the song rather than depicting it in a conventional linear fashion.
    I'm not sure whether Fukase intended any specific interpretation or based his use of the literary device on traditional Chinese shadow theater or any derivative. But his allusions to traditional panel and screen graphics in his photos of birds indicates he may have either been conscious of allusions to shadow theater, or had so fully integrated the concept into his work that he didn't need to think about it.
    And I may be merely seeing my own shadow, wondering who's following me, or whether I'm following my own shadow.
  37. I hadn't thought of literal shadow plays (I am familiar with them, so thank you for bringing them to mind). They are a very good model for what I have in mind (which may not be quite the same as your idea) -- in that the scrim, the inter-face where Fukase and shadows (ravens) meet is all there is. There is no Fukase at any distance observing, with a remainder of "himself" in reserve.
  38. Lex, I think that if you had chosen from the very start the early photos of Fukase, from the "happy" period where he used his wife, Yoko, as main subject, we would have had another discussion. To me, most of the photos you link to, reminds me of as if Fukase was playing traditional Japanese Noh theatre. The face of his wife is much alike traditional Noh masks like these. During that period he is mostly known for the playfull shots of Yoko, like this, although she got bored, as she is said to have claimed as a reason for leaving him.
  39. Les says: "despair in this character sitting amid garbage, apparently holding a beer can, a jester with his bauble."
    Yes, and just how am I led into this guy's despair, if that's what I see? The content, IMO, is the most obvious sign, a man sitting alone among strewn garbage and newspapers. Beyond that, what has Fukase portrayed for me? Well, one of the last things I noticed but, maybe because it took me a while to focus on it, was the lone beer bottle in the foreground, the only other element standing prone as if echoing the man's upper body itself. It also stands out, as does the man, because it's so dark. It's a little, barely noticeable detail like that which, even though I might not consciously notice it or remember it when not looking at the photo, adds so much extra to the feeling I get when I look at the photo. I think the darker contrast of the man to his surroundings, especially the lighter strewn papers, goes a long way in delivering this sense of isolation, alienation, or despair. And it sort of ties him to the dark blackness of the underside of the trees. It's as if he's meant for that black space. It's beckoning to me. A reason a photographer like Fukase is so good is this man's hand gesture, which Fukase wasn't responsible for in that I don't think he told him to pose that way (though you never know!), but he was responsible for snapping the shutter at this moment and capturing it. It's birdlike, isn't it? Fingers spread, like the hand could take flight or is in the midst of doing so. The beer bottle, and the hand, two small but significant gestures, add so much texture to this photo and the feelings it provokes. Then there's the car in the background. Whose is it? Parked? Moving away? In any case, it adds to the man's aloneness in its own sense of aloneness and mystique. There are strong contrasts here, but I don't see it as a graphic high contrast photo. It has a softer, more pensive edge and plenty of gray mid-tones. Though it wouldn't be a print I'd look at with the same eye as I'd look at a Weston print, I'd like to see the print of this. Because the whites, particularly in the strewn paper, could almost have a spiritual effect against the more body-like darks, particularly seen in the man. There's a barefooted rawness to this photo, the graininess, the lack of clarity, the grayness of the sky and trees, the man shrouded in a lack of clear detail, the shadows of the trees obliterated into darkness, all seeming to be just there, just present against the very deliberateness of this human being, seemingly down on his luck but still definitely engaged in whatever he's doing and almost defying the malaise around him even while seeming to be a part of it. It may not be all despair!
  40. This is one of the few weekly discussions that I will save and re-read. Not because I have little time at present (being sucked into the joys, intensities and fears of a professional contract that is all-absorbing), but because the portfolio of the artist is so interesting, somewhat unique and questioning in its messages, with the comments here on Photo.Net being equally so, that I want to go back at some point and understand and use it in my own work and approaches. In that sense, I have made a number of images that are visibly bleak or are despairing to some, not from a personal need or display of emotion, but rather from an aesthetic need to create them - despair or a desire to show darker sides - from a distance.
    Thus, about the only thing I can ponder at present in this topic is that of the degree to which the intense appearance of despair or loneliness in his photos is the product of personal situation or that of an artistic aesthetic. A photo is like a play or any other artistic product of communication. It is important to know whether the artist is giving vent to his own strong feelings or whether is using the medium as an aesthetic and less personal commentary on either the human situation or his own aesthetic values. Perhaps the thread of darkness and isolation in many of his photos, even before the loss of his wife, are what, artistically, he is really all about
  41. Arthur, a couple of thoughts about what you said, and what you said raises many interesting questions.
    If there is an aesthetic need in someone, and it is to be productive and fruitful and of value, I'd imagine there has to be some sense of the authentic feeling behind it. One doesn't only make bleak images when mired in the darkest moments of despair, but I think one has to have experienced such despair and be channeling it in order to make an authentic image that would convey it empathetically to a viewer.
    I think one can gain distance over time from their own feelings and still come up with art that expresses the original feelings. But I think if one hasn't had the feelings to begin with, attempting to express them through art will likely be an exercise in futility.
    I can't think of any great artists who convey something significant about the human condition who I don't imagine have experienced that side of the human condition personally and intimately.
    The depression-era photographers are a case in point and a good contrast to Fukase, perhaps. They were showing us, often effectively and aesthetically, what despair and poverty could like but didn't seem necessarily to be claiming it as their own. From Fukase, on the other hand, I sense no distance, no showing, but rather an intimate revelation and ownership of the despair. That, I think, cannot be done from an aesthetic distance.
  42. I agree, Fred, with your relationship of emotional issues and their expression in photographs. An artist not having experienced those emotions is not likely able to invent them in his or her images. My question was in part related to the timing of the emotional experience and the image creation. Sometimes the delay between the experience and the artistic creation is significant. When I see weathered trees I may reflect on former personal periods of loneliness, rejection or despair and see the image before me in that way. The distance from the original emotional event can be an advantage as I am not ceased entirely by it and can freely consider the aesthetic or otherly symbolic aspects of my composition.
    Without some former emotional experience connected to the subject perception the result may be less interesting, but on the other hand the distance that allows me to consider the image from other angles is also beneficial in some cases. I have yet to make an image while in the midst of a profoundly disturbing or uplifting emotional event although at some times I have come close to that. That would be interesting. In the meantime I like the interplay of previous emotional experiences with the present aesthetic considerations of image creation, which occurs upon perceiving certain subjects,
  43. Hey, Jim, thanks for the Tom Millea reference, looking forward to checking it out.
    "Despite some admiration for Ravens, my mind and eyes tire of looking at an almost endless series of black blobs. The book is entirely too obscure to be called the "best" of anything. Fukase strips ravens of their detail and personalities (they're anything but solitary), and turns them into a product or projection of his own little personal type of insanity."​
    I do understand your response. It's not easy stuff to like. I'm not even sure I "like" it so much as appreciate the brooding intensity. And it seems to demand an immersion into Fukase's vision that isn't pleasant.

    It's reminiscent of tone poems like Fever Ray's eponymous album of nightmarish electronica. I like a few of the songs from the album out of context. But the album has a brooding, ominous feel that works best in a single sitting without interruptions, akin to watching a suspenseful movie in which it seems like something surprising will happen any moment... and it never does. It just leaves us dangling uncomfortably, wondering what we just watched or heard.

    And maybe that's the point. To not reach a comfortable resolution.
  44. I get practically nothing from these photographs. I think his device is, well it is too obvious, too theatrical and the content/compositions don't strike me as particularly good. If you want to articulate your own pain, it's not for me to judge how you do it, but I do have the right not to find the results engaging. I'm surprised at the critiques posted here, from thoughtful people who have obviously been moved by this work. To me they seem self-indulgent and pointless, especially when there are many other, less prosaic and more important subjects which would be very emotive for myself as a viewer, e.g. the faces of victims of radiation poisoning, or those with physical or mental disabilities who were shut-in as a disgrace to the family as a matter of course in Japan.
  45. ". . . more important subjects which would be very emotive for myself as a viewer, e.g. the faces of victims of radiation poisoning, or those with physical or mental disabilities who were shut-in as a disgrace to the family as a matter of course in Japan."
    Indeed, would be very different pictures. Not what Fukase was about. He was not documenting anything and he wasn't showing the battle scars of others. Sure, I suppose that's self indulgent, though in the same way a lot of great art is.

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