Monday, December 15, 2008

Solitude of Ravens by Masahisa Fukase

The Rathole publisher and gallery in Japan recently released a new edition of Masahisa Fukase's Solitude of Ravens. This I believe is a reprint of his 1986 book Ravens as well as the American released Solitude of Ravens published by Bedford Arts in 1991. Having not seen the first edition, I can only speculate that they all have the same edit and sequence.

As I spend more time with this book it is quickly becoming one of the coldest, darkest and dreariest visions I've encountered in a photography book. For Fukase, ravens, as they are perceived around the world, are bad omens and it is quickly established through his sequencing that we are not in for a journey that will end well. Within 7 plates, the sky is black with them and when we encounter the first humans they are nothing but shadowy forms within a landscape so inhospitable I can only think that we are descending into the outer rings of Dante's hell.

Blurry, grainy, black and white 35mm photograph do Fukase's bidding to keep us detached from reality and steeped in dark metaphor. In one image a silhouette of a boat appears through misty waters with two black figures guiding, but when we encounter the skiff a few plates later, it has been submerged and all that remains are ravens perched on its wooden edges.

The creepier aspect of the book is that the ravens aren't the villains, just the messengers. There are darker forces at work that even claim the lives of the birds. One gets eaten by a scowling cat while another is killed and tied to a pole perhaps as a talisman, but the darkening skies refer to something that can't be reasoned with.

In two curious images, a fleshy nude woman laying on a bed is followed by an image of what looks to be a fish that has been landed and killed. Both the woman and the fish have similar soft fleshy qualities that we may come away with the sense that the former has transformed into the later - a premonition of the future.

Fukase continues our journey and the landscape becomes bleaker and darker, now we drift into industrial towns whose skies are now darkened by factory towers belching black pollution. The flocks of ravens become more frantic until a dozen or so photos late in the second act shift the mood to an eerie calm. Just as life seems to brighten and perhaps calamity avoided, a jet screams overhead and within moments we are engulfed in explosion and a firestorm that leaves the landscape an apocalyptic wasteland. One sole survivor is left sitting dumbfounded in the debris.

The idea that this book refers to one of the darkest moments in human history with the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or of the industrial nightmare that has consumed much of modern life do not tie this work into easy conclusions. Fukase's power comes from the feeling of isolation as we drift alone through his world, observing it from a distance. We are not a part of community but a stranger that appears at its margins, never penetrating or connecting with exception of a single rendezvous with the fleshy woman. All the while we are left defenseless, like the homeless man in the very last photograph shuffling off with his back to the camera.

This version of Solitude of Ravens is hardcover with an attractive slipcase and is published in 1000 copies. The cover cloth is debossed with Fukase's signature and an image of a raven. The printing is beautiful and rich. Like most all of Rathole's books, the design is elegant with a hip sensibility that makes these objects hard to resist.

Available through Rathole Gallery