Masahisa Fukase: the man who only photographed his wife

Japanese artist expressed his love in 13-year project focused solely on second wife Yoko, then his loss at her leaving him in similarly obsessive images of ravens in grainy monochrome

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 July, 2015, 11:22pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 July, 2015, 11:22pm
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Masahisa Fukase is best known for his 1986 photobook The Solitude of Ravens. In 2010, a panel of experts voted it the best photobook of the past 25 years. Like all of Fukase's work, it's a stark book that reflects his melancholic and obsessive nature. The ravens, photographed in flight or resting on branches in grainy monochrome, are symbols of his grief at the breakdown of his marriage to second wife, Yoko.

Yoko is also the subject of a fascinating series called From Window that Fukase made in 1974. It is on show at the Les Rencontres d'Arles photography festival in France as part of "Another Language", an illuminating group exhibition of eight Japanese photographers curated by the Simon Baker, of London's Tate Gallery. The work includes well-known photographers such as Daido Moriyama and Eikoh Hosoe as well as trailblazing newcomers such as Daisuke Yokota and Sakiko Nomura. It runs until the end of August.

In this context, Fukase's From Window series seems almost like a set of snapshots, with Yoko pulling faces, posing or simply shouting up at him from below as she leaves their apartment.

But as with all of his work, it's the subtext that matters. Here, the subtext is desire driven to the point of obsession. One abiding question raised by the series - which is only a small part of his 13-year project devoted solely to images of Yoko - is what must it have been like for her to be the subject of such relentless scrutiny? It certainly seems to have contributed to her decision to leave him. She later described their life together as moments of "suffocating dullness interspersed by violent and near suicidal flashes of excitement".

And yet, as the series Yoko shows, she is a willing participant. She performs, dresses up and poses. The resultant photographs are often joyous as well as sombre. In one portrait, her face is made up to make her look old - she still looks beautiful. In another, taken at the private view for the New Japanese Photography Exhibition, curated by John Szarkowski at MoMA in 1974, she crouches below his work wearing a kimono as the VIPs pass by, seemingly oblivious to her mischievous presence and unaware that she is a collaborator in the pictures. For Fukase, the camera may have been a way of attempting to keep control of Yoko, as well as the world around him.

"I work and photograph while hoping to stop everything," he once said. "In that sense, my work may be some kind of revenge drama about living now."

If all photographers freeze-frame the world each time they press the shutter button, for Fukase the action seemed darkly loaded - as if through taking a photo, he could somehow stop time passing. It is illuminating to learn that he also photographed his first wife, Yukiyo Kawakami, continually - she appears in his first, very rare (and very expensive) photobook, Yugi, from 1971, as does Yoko.

When Yoko left him in 1976, Fukase began drinking heavily and suffered bouts of debilitating depression. In the immediate months after her departure, he photographed ravens he saw at train stations on his way home to Hokkaido with the same single-minded intensity that he had photographed her. He continued photographing them until 1982, by which time he was remarried. In Japanese mythology, ravens are disruptive creatures, omens of turbulent times, but here they are symbols of lost love and almost unendurable heartbreak.

If The Ravens is a hymn to heartbreak, Yoko is an altogether more uplifting book, despite its almost self-fulfilling subtext. Together, they make up an intense and personally revealing narrative of love and loss seldom equalled in photography.

He died in 2012, having been in a coma for 20 years following a near-fatal fall down the stairs of his favourite bar in 1992. Yoko visited him twice a month throughout his long limbo - though he would have been unaware of her presence. "He remains part of my identity," she said, adding: "With a camera in front of his eye, he could see; not without."

Against the darkness of Fukase's life, From Window is a bright counterpoint to the myth that now surrounds him and his work: a young woman returning and undercutting the relentless gaze of her male lover's eyes, refusing to be defined by his camera just as she revels in its power. Their love shines through, and triumphs over, his obsessive devotion.

The Guardian