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

27 comments:

Jimmy said...

The books is fantastic, but the 115 dollar pricetag makes it quite easy to resist for me... Too bad. Rat Hole is releasing a new book by Moriyama soon, this week I think, priced at 230 dollars.

Anonymous said...

One of the most intriguing books I know.

China Plate said...

They are also bringing out a 900 page book on Keizo Kitajima's street work, which looks like it will be pretty amazing.

stacy oborn said...

Fukase's work and life is itself a cold and dark place...your take on the sequencing and tone of the images is thoughtful and gains in urgency much as the images do as one moves through them. Some time ago I wrote about the events and work leading up to this work.

Fukase's last book, Bukubuku, maintains the sad and dreary tone found in Solitude of Ravens, but the latter is most certainly the master work. And honestly, at just a little over $100, is a steal.

a mind with no ceiling said...

Great review Jeff, not a easy book to write about. The first time I saw it I thought it was a bit too heavy on the raven metaphor but multiple viewing have made me even wake up in the night, with images of the book swirling in my mind. It's incredibly powerful work, and has a book logic that is hard to be explained, but that definitely exists.

dolphin said...

http://sankei.jp.msn.com/culture/academic/081213/acd0812131523006-n1.htm

Another Great Photographer 岸本吉太
. photo Hiroshima, Japan on Oct 1945 and first issued these photographs on DEC 2008.

Don said...

Great review Jeff. Brought out stuff I hadn't noticed in many viewings of the book. The book is one of the highlights of photobook history.

Jan V said...

Does someone know where to buy this book in Europe?

I asked it at the Schaden-booth at ParisPhoto but they said it was 'ausverkauft'. Strangely enough it wasn't nowhere to be found at ParisPhoto.

The book doesn't seem to have a fixed price either. At PhotoEye each week 10 dollar seems to be added to the price. I should have ordered it in early november (but I didn't because I tought it would be available at Paris Photo).

Anonymous said...

Dashwood Books has it for $125. I've looked around and this seems to be a pretty reasonable price (not Europe, I know, but for anyone stateside who's looking). I've ordered a copy and expect it will be a favorite in my collection.

Brian

China Plate said...

The Photographers Gallery in London have 4 or 5 copies for £70 but they are going pretty fast.

Antonio Mascouflatte said...

You're completely missing the point.
Fukase's images presented in this book were shot when he gave up his successful career shooting for advertisement agencies and such to roam across Japan. He started to shoot ravens at the start of his journey, and shooting ravens became a ritual and a way to bring closure to the sudden and tragic loss he suffered when his wife died. The mood of the pictures has certainly nothing to do with Hiroshima or Nagasaki tragedies or whatever ellucubration one reviewer can muster from looking at the book without knowing the why, when and how.

China Plate said...

I thought it was the when he divorced his wife? not when she died.

But then maybe I am wrong?

http://www.photobookguide.com/author/masahisa-fukase/

Jeff Ladd said...

Antonio,

I appreciate the comments...but all of the things you have cited as the "reasoning" behind this work are not included in the book at all either in pictures or text and I would argue have no bearing other than towards the depressed mood. One does not have to know the backstory or intent of the artist to interpret work. What I wrote is what I got from the book. If you want to interpret the work as a guy getting over the death of his wife, that's fine too. But it isn't a matter of one "completely missing the point."

Garry Winogrand went to the zoo because his kids liked the zoo. He kept going on his own because he saw something in the pictures. Does that initial impetus have any bearing on those photos and what they came to represent? Not at all.

Not to sound callous but I couldn't care less what the back story is unless it's in the pictures.

Lastly, sorry but my Western view has conditioned me to interpret a book from Japan that ends with a fiery inferno as a reference to Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Especially when the inferno is proceeded by an image of a raven that has turned into a huge black airplane.

Stuart Alexander said...

Read Stacy Oborn's interesting text that you can get to by the link in her comment above. She said that Fukase's wife left him after 13 years. She did not die. There is much more worthwhile and tragic information in Oborn's text, that I won't try to repeat, that can aid one's further understanding of Fukase and his work.

dolphin said...

Wild mynah birds? or revans?

According to sizes, look seems to mynah birds, not revans.: )

dolphin said...

Wild mynah birds? or revans?

According to sizes, look seems to mynah birds, not revans.: )

adrian tyler said...

well he took the pictures over 10 years, so i think that we can descart "post divorce trauma". it's too easy anyway.

certainly a "life changing" event can lead us to a philosophical recognition or discovery, but it can't keep us in that state for 10 years...

this work comes from deep inside, and i doubt that not even the photographer himself could "explain" it.

Anonymous said...

The aforementioned theories are all interesting and generally plausible, but actual story behind the book is more prosaic. It's well documented that Fukase was a profuse cigarette smoker. After a stray butt burned down his dark room in 1986 he tried desperately to quit the habit, part of his strategy being to immerse himself in making "Solitude of Ravens". As he explained just before his death, the ravens represent the spectre of relapse - the shadow of the crushed cigarette - and the inferno refers to his sparking up again. If you look carefully in most of the images you can even see specks of ash and tar.

China Plate said...

Well, this is all quite bizarre. I was speaking to the representative of the Rathole Gallery at Paris Photo in November who mentioned that Fukaze was still alive and had come out of his coma!? Maybe it got lost in translation (excuse the pun) but that is what I thought had happened.

Can anyone clarify?

Anonymous said...

China Plate, Yes you're right. He regained consciousness just long enough to check the printing job ...then promptly lost consciousness again.

colin pantall said...

Hi Jan V - you can order it from The Photographers Gallery bookshop in London. Still have copies at £70

+44 20 7841 5068
bookshop@photonet.org.uk

charlie at the Strand said...

Jeff:
Just want to let your readers know that the Strand just got in a small quantity of Jason Eskenazi's "Wonderland" and that we will be re-ordering Masahisa Fukase's "Solitude of Ravens". We still have a few copies of "Bukubuku" for $99.95. Our shipping rates internationally are very reasonable ($6.99 for the first book, 3.99 each additional). Hope this helps...

Chuck Shacochis said...

Jeff,
Thank you for yet another beautifully written review.

From reading the comments above, I did not realize that one is supposed to do one's homework and research a photographer's life story and precise artistic intentions before writing about how a body of work moves you. Good to know.

I hope you have a very happy holiday and I hope things continue to prosper for you in the new year.

Thanks once again for all of your insightful reviews.

Take care man,
Chuck Shacochis

Jan Vandemoortele said...

@ China Plate, Colin Pantell & Anonymous: thank you all for the info. I've just ordered the book from the The Photographers Gallery bookshop. I think that's the best option if you live in Europe.

Jeff, did you already put 'Ravens' next to your runner-up 14 'Bird'? The few Japanese books I have (Kawada, Yamamoto, Ueda) share a shelf with a few parts from Roni Horn's 'To Place'-cycle.

After looking at those sometimes rather, disturbing Japanese books, I need some cool lightblue Icelandic pictures...

Jan said...

Sorry Colin, should be 'Pantall' (interesting blog you have).

verninino said...

My first exposure to Japanese photography was Aperture's BLACK SUN. In 1999 I saw Fukase's "Raven" photographs at the Robert Mann Gallery over a dozen years ago; I've been intrigued ever since.

Glad it's been republished and will soon be readily available stateside. It's sure to make my best of 2008 list, even though I won't get it until 2009.

Mark Page said...

Great post, thanks for introducing me to another great Japanese artist.