1st edition, entitled Karasu (Ravens) published by Sokyu-sha, Tokyo, 1986, edited by Akira Hasegawa, designed by Kazhyuki Goto, debossed raven on cover. Cardboard slipcase with printed white label. 2nd edition, entitled The Solitude of Ravens, published by Bedford Arts, cover design (flock of ravens) by Jon Goodchild/Triad, produced by Michitaka Ota, designed by Kazuyuki Goto, printed by Toppan Printing Co., introductory note by David Travis, afterword by Akira Hasegawa, no slipcase.  Quarto format, both editions. Edition sizes not known.

"In The Solitude of Ravens Masahisa Fukase's work can be deemed to have reached its supreme height; it can also be said to have fallen to its greatest depth". So begins Akira Hasegawa's afterword to Fukase's The Solitude of Ravens, which was originally titled Karasu (Ravens) when it was published in Japan. There can be few photobooks sadder, lonelier, or more tragic than this sequence. Fukase had been famous for the joyous photographs he took of his wife but the marriage dissolved in 1976 and the emotions depicted in Fukase's portfolio began to reverse direction.

Masahisa Fukase - The Solitude of Ravens
A black on black version of this photo is the cover of the 1st edition

A despondent Fukase became infatuated with the raven of his native Hokkaido, ten years worth of photographs of these birds make up The Solitude of Ravens. Published in Japan in 1986, it was republished in the United States in 1991. Soon after, Fukase fell down a staircase after returning drunk from a night out. He has been in a coma for the last 14 years. The photobook he left behind is a triumph of photographic expressionism, a record of a man who turned inward, leaving behind pure images of personal grief.

Masahisa Fukase - The Solitude of Ravens

The raven is a creature heavy with imbued meaning. Edgar Allan Poe's Raven, whose "eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming", was a conflict of darkness and light. There is a dangerous loneliness to the singular bird and a great gloom to the flock that weighs down a sky. Perched together on a spindly tree, they sit in apparent melancholy. The raven lends itself to a particularly Japanese aesthetic. Elegant and strong in silhouette, it could be said to resemble a calligraphic marking. One image in the book is of a large aeroplane blocking out most of the viewfinder, its outline resembling the raven.

Masahisa Fukase - The Solitude of Ravens

When Araki Nobuyoshi's wife Yoko died of cancer in 1990, the great photographer descended into his own gloom. His visual vocabulary became one of vast skies, and the memory of Yoko was metaphorically preserved as photos of their pet cat. The departure of Fukase's wife, also named Yoko, left no room for fond rememberance. It was on pilgrimage to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido that he adopted the raven as the symbol of the pain which never left him.

Masahisa Fukase - The Solitude of Ravens
The 2nd edition (US edition) cover is a crop of this photograph

Words can never suffice for these emotional photographs, but consider part of the narrative. Ravens flashlit in a night time tree, their eyes glinting back menacingly; a flock of ravens peppering the grainy sky; a dead raven, face down in the snow; a plump cat, close up, having just devoured a captured raven; a large naked woman on her side in bed, rolls of fat take the eye away from her closed eye grimace. What enormous loneliness could lead to such images? The book ends with a picture of a tramp, a mirror image of the introspecive photographer, cloaked in a cape of rags that hangs like wings. To view these images properly is not easy for they are not pleasant. There is no hope and no optimistic ending. Like Edvard Munch's expressionist The Scream, the despair Fukase depicts is borne of the artist's inner hell.

Masahisa Fukase - The Solitude of Ravens

The first edition of the book was published as Karasu in 1986, though it was also labelled The Ravens. The cover shows a black on black silhouette of a raven, similar to the photograph at the top of this article. The book, like many Japanese Photobooks, is housed in a simply brown cardboard slipcase, and is now incredibly rare. The re-issue in 1991 by Bedford Arts has a different cover (shown above) and no slipcase. It is becoming difficult to track down a copy in good condition for a decent price.

Masahisa Fukase - The Solitude of Ravens

The Solitude of Ravens was Fukase's last work before he plunged into coma. This is a monumental and pivotal work in the history of photobooks underscored by the terrible tragedy of the photographer who created it.

* If you have any comments regarding the accuracy of details in this review, or you have additional details that others may be interested in, please be kind enough to contact me so that I can incorporate your information.

May 15th, 2006

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