The Solitude of Ravens by Masahisa Fukase

The Solitude of Ravens was Masahisa Fukase’s last work before he plunged into a coma. This is a monumental and pivotal work in the history of fine art photography.

Words can never suffice for these emotional photographs.  Fukase is considered to be both a legend and an enigma in his native Japan and for a culture that is traditionally reluctant to expose emotion in public, the expressionistic character of Fukase’s work has since been unparalleled in its impact.

Born in 1934, Fukase grew up in a decade of the first Japanese children in which mannered self-control was not the ideal civic behavior. This new perspective, coupled with the effects of war, exploded into the avant-garde art scene in Tokyo. In elegant printing techniques emerged and the manic style of photography that Fukase shared with his contemporaries, among them Eikoh Hosoe, Daidoh Moriyama, and Shomei Tomatsu, reflected the “reaction to a world turned upside down.”

In the wake of his divorce in 1976 from Yoko, his wife of 13 years, Fukase began a search for absolution through his work which would last a decade.  His images crystallize solitude and death, appropriate to his last sombre years. He became obsessed with his subjects, with their darkness and loneliness. The Solitude of Ravens, then, is a wordless requiem.

Fukase, according to Yoko, was an intense and obsessive character despite the joyousness of the images he made of her early in his career. She described their life together as moments of “suffocating dullness interspersed by violent and near suicidal flashes of excitement.” After they split up, he suffered from bouts of depression and heavy drinking. “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.”

In Japanese mythology, ravens are disruptive presences and harbingers of dark and dangerous times ““ another reason, perhaps, why the photographer was drawn to them during his darkest hour. In 1992, five years after the book was published, Fukase fell down a flight of stairs in a bar. He has been in a coma ever since. His former wife, now remarried, visits him in hospital twice a month. “With a camera in front of his eye, he could see; not without,” she told an interviewer. “He remains part of my identity; that’s why I still visit him.”

For all that, there is a dark, brooding beauty in these images that is singular and affecting. In The Solitude of Ravens, Fukase found a subject that reflected his darkening vision, and he pursued it with obsessive relentlessness. It remains his most powerful work, and a kind of epitaph for a life that has been even sadder and darker than the photographs suggest.

The photobook ‘The Solitude of Ravens’ is rare and quite expensive, ranging from $200-1000USD, however you can find copies here or through Ebay.

Masahisa Fukase at the Victoria and Albert Museum
Masahisa Fukase at the Stephen Wertz Gallery