Finding Fukase

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It is almost 25 years since the Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase fell down a flight of stairs in a Tokyo bar, suffering brain injuries from which he never recovered. He died in 2012 at the age of 78. He was regarded as one of the most original photographers of his generation yet, until recently, relatively little of his work had been published outside Japan. 

Fukase belonged to an influential group of postwar Japanese photographers who were brought together in 1974 for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – a first attempt to introduce contemporary Japanese photography to the west. 

“At that time he was seen as a very innovative artist, but he later fell into relative obscurity due to the complexity surrounding copyright of his work after the accident,” says Simon Baker, Tate’s curator of photography, who has organised the first retrospective of Fukase’s work in Europe for the International Photography Festival in Arles, which opens this month. In the years after his accident, the rights to showing and publishing Fukase’s works remained in legal limbo. But since 2015, when the Fukase Archive was set up by Tomo Kosuga, his images have been made much more accessible. 

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Fukase was born in 1934 in Bifuka, a small town in the north of Hokkaido, where his family ran a photographic studio. He moved to Tokyo in the 1950s and worked as a freelance photographer, increasingly exhibiting and publishing his work. In 1974, he co-founded the Workshop Photography School with Shomei Tomatsu, Eikoh Hosoe, Noriaki Yokosuka, Nobuyoshi Araki and Daido Moriyama, all of whom were included in the MoMA exhibition that same year. 

The title of this year’s show at the festival in Arles, Fukase: The Incurable Egoist, comes from an article written in 1973 by Fukase’s second wife, Yoko Wanibe, who was central to his work during their 13-year marriage and continued to affect his art thereafter. She believed that the endless photographs he took of her “unmistakably depicted Fukase himself”. 

Fukase’s first book of photographs, Yugi (Homo Ludence), published in 1971, obsessively took his wife as its subject and in 1978, two years after the breakdown of their marriage, he published Yoko, a deeply personal document of their tumultuous life together. The years after Wanibe left were marked by depression and a period of isolation and solitude during which he made his most celebrated series of photographs, “Karasu” (Ravens), in which the flocks of ravens he observed during his train journeys from Toyko home to Hokkaido supplied a bleak visual metaphor of isolation and loss. A reflection of his own troubled psyche, Fukase seems entirely embodied in his photographs. 

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Fukase’s work was first shown in Britain in the mid-1980s, alongside Hosoe, Tomatsu and Moriyama, in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford curated by the photography editor and writer Mark Holborn. It subsequently came to the Serpentine Gallery in London, which is where the London gallery owner Michael Hoppen first encountered Fukase’s work. “I saw it at the Serpentine, and then at the V&A, where [curator] Mark Haworth-Booth had bought some 30 works for the museum’s collection. It was some of the best photography I had ever seen,” Hoppen says. 

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In the early 1990s, Fukase began photographing himself, creating several series, including “Bukubuku” – a claustrophobic but slyly humorous series of self-portraits taken in the bath with an underwater camera, and “Private Scenes”, in which he captured himself in the street in early “selfies” that today look remarkably fresh. In “Hibi”, his figure appears only as a shadow in a series of monochrome studies of cracked pavements that he later painted loosely in washes of vibrant pinks, turquoise and ochre. 

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Forever recording himself through the prism of people, places and events, Fukase was aware that his self-portraits were “almost a disease”. But the subject to which he had returned just four months before his fall was ravens – about 1,000 postcard-sized prints have recently been recovered, depicting single ravens in flight that Fukase has drawn over by hand. “Fukase saw life predominantly throughhis camera lens,” says Hoppen. “Almost all of his work is autobiographical. Translating one’s personality into photographs is not as easy as it sounds. To do it again and again so successfully is a rare achievement.” 

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This article first appeared in the FT Weekend Magazine in June 2017.