Karasu: The solitude of Ravens; photographs by Masahisa Fukase

On my way to see this exhibition at The Michael Hoppen Gallery in Chelsea, London, I decide to do a little research. My interest is the subject, birds, and the way the author represents them through the medium of photography; it seems likely that the Ravens have become symbols of something else, a fractured part of the photographer’s psyche perhaps or possibly something more transcendent.

20160414-Michael Hoppen Gallery-2665

The book was first published in 1986. It made Fukase famous and recognised as an artist. The picture series started in 1976 and was made during an era in which he separated from his first wife and married his second; this suggests that the Ravens might well be a reflection of an inner process Fukase was undergoing. Fukase said that the work might be “his own revenge play against life” and this was the enjoyable part of the work during which he became a Raven! Technically the photographs were not easy to make owing to the fast movement of the birds and the constantly changing exposures required as well as low light levels.
In 2010, the book was voted the best Photobook from 1986-2009 by a panel of 5 experts organised by The British Journal of Photography. Copies of the book second hand start at about £500 so one is only likely to see them in an exhibition which is of course the best place to see photographs as the printing is the work of the photographer rather than a publisher.
My train in the end is about 3 hours late arriving in London. Fortunately, the Circle Line is running and I make my way to Sloane Square from where I walk down the King’s Road to Jubilee Place. The Michael Hoppen Gallery is only a few paces from the main road. I ring and there is a buzz which allows me to enter. Ravens? Yes, the exhibition is on the first floor.
20160414-Ravens_visit to Michael Hoppen Gallery-2673
At the top of the stairs, I am met by three framed prints, all black and white images. The photographer’s name Masahisa Fukase is printed in large black capital letters on the wall. Like all the 31 framed black and white images in this exhibition, there are no captions or any indication of which way round they might be read. With Japanese language running from left to right on the page, it is anyone’s guess as to the intended order which might or might not be the same as that in the book.
What I like about Japanese art photography is the imaginary quality. The view is fixed owing to the technicalities of the camera yet here it is made with an abstract sense of perspective. The imagery not all of Ravens clearly resonates with the human spirit. For instance, there is one image of factory chimneys spouting smoke with no Raven in sight; another shows a close up of a cat in the snow, another appears to show a snow storm in which a group of trees loom in the background. Another image shows what might be an explosion with dislodged objects flying through the air assuming a variety of forms not unlike the shadowy shapes of the Ravens in other images. One image shows a close up of a plane flying overhead, a dark shadow from which a patch of light glimmers; another image shows an obese reclining nude; people walk down a road … yet most of the images in this exhibition do contain photographs of Ravens!
Initially, the ornithologist within wants to make sure these are Ravens and not starlings, a bird that flocks communally and is much more common in the UK than the Raven although roosts of Ravens do occur. They might of course be Jackdaws, a bird that has similar features but a slaty grey eye rather than the darker one of the Raven. Technically, none of these images are clear enough to show any real detail such as that of feathers or eye colour and this, for many, might make this series of images uninteresting and too amateurish to be worth looking at for long. However, these images are not made as detailed studies of a particular species that can be studied as scientific objects rather they are commentaries. Obviously, they would not do well in the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition even if entered into the black and white category unless there was someone there with a truly enlightened outlook. In fact, to enter a photograph into this competition, it needs to be taken not more than 5 years ago and these are from about 50 years ago.
I chat with someone from the gallery. These photographs are original prints made by the artist that the Michael Hoppen Gallery acquired from the estate of the artist; the gallery represents the photographer and loaned the photographs from other bodies of work presently showing in Tate Modern. The selection of prints on show here are only some of the ones seen in the book yet there are also other images that were not in the book.
Another gallery employee informs me that the order of the prints was chosen by their owner, Michael Hoppen. The order in the book was actually made by a friend of the photographer so this curatorial influence is not out of place. With the photographer dead, it is simply not possible to construct something that is a direct result of his vision.
While professional bird photography demands perfectly exposed subjects in which one can see the feathers with razor sharp detail, there is something relaxing in seeing imagery free of these restrictions. One cannot deny this is nature photography simply because it does not live up to certain conventions expected from those who see the photograph as a valuable document aided by a certain amount of compositional artifice for effect. A nature photograph can be much more than this if only by referencing the jizz of a bird, jizz being a term that refers to the initial impression a species of bird might make on one when only being allowed a momentary glimpse. This kind of imaging tends to be completely ignored by books about birds even though it is part of the ornithological enquiry.
What makes Fukase’s images intriguing is their impressionistic approach. The first image, if one can consider it that as it is the first one to be passed, shows some detail; back feathers including primaries and secondaries, the shape and nature of the beak, the way the bird stands, one is even seen flying with drooped wings at the top left hand corner of the image while others stand and crouch in a variety of poses … the second image shows the birds flying as a flock, again with a variety of wing movements while a few are still perched, hanging nimbly on to the tops of plants. In the third image that suggests night, the birds fly overhead as a flock, a light illuminating them from below; here light reflected from under their wings suggests different colourations which are unreal and yet this is more or less how one would see them at night under a street lamp.
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I could discuss each different photograph of the birds but that might encourage pedantry. One image worthy of note is what might be a dead Raven in a landscape covered by snow which is placed above the image of the obese reclining nude who is possibly one of Fukase’s wives though I later learn that it is possibly a masseuse he visited. Separated only by one photograph of a blurred landscape, is another image of this dead bird only this time it is the main object of interest, a close up in which there is no landscape other than the surrounding snow; above this is the cat close up, the cat being the natural enemy of all birds. Death is present here in this small extracted collection yet there is no direct comment, no caption to entrap one with it’s ideology! Also present is the naked woman …
There follow four images with no Ravens until one reaches another couple. Again, the Ravens are seen as a flock.
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photos of Ravens on wires with a portrait of the photographer-artist at far right

At the end of the gallery, there is triptych of prints in which the birds are silhouetted along with the wires they perch on. There is an element of humour here, of relationships being struck, of tension in those relationships as birds caw with beaks agape or silently share their presence. To the right is a photograph of the photographer, it’s’ smaller size suggesting that it is not part of the exhibition merely a reference point. To the left are a couple of postcards which can be purchased.
The next part of the wall is a mid-tone grey which I personally find a more pleasing background for these black and white images.
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The first is a full frame image of a flying bird not only blurred but grainy, the abstract quality given a tangible feel. There follows an image that looks like it might have been taken at night though it may just be under-exposed yet the effect is of birds seen at dawn or dusk; a small piece of the negative is visible in which the holes for winding the film on can be seen.
20160414-Ravens - Michael Hoppen Gallery-2679
An important image, it has been made into a postcard printed darker with a colder tone, is a silhouette of a bird that has one claw held up as if pressing against a window pane through which it looks out.
20160414-Ravens_visit to Michael Hoppen Gallery-2681
Perhaps my favourite image, someone at the gallery I chat to also likes it, is of a flock of Ravens roosting in a tree, taken at night. One knows this is a night image because the flash has reflected in their eyes producing a myriad of white dots that stare inquisitively back at the viewer. One can see the tree with its’ detail of branch and twig yet the birds are little more than blobs and might be taken as insects of some kind if one was not now familiar with the nature of the imagery.
There are 21 photographs of Ravens and they do show different aspects of the bird, different behaviours and so in fact form an interesting record of the bird. Yet this is not what the exhibition is really about, there is an underlying theme which is not easy to define in words. Impossible perhaps hence the need for the symbolic power of images.
Another image that has been made into a postcard shows three people, only their heads feature, standing by the sea and looking out towards the horizon onto which the sun is reflected. This suggests a personal message, of an experience being lived and communicated. Loss and finding of love, the children affected …
The penultimate image in my anti-clockwise tour, does not actually show Ravens but only markings presumably made in the snow by Ravens, a comment perhaps on the nature of photographs which do not actually convey the scenes they reveal but are composed of an elaborate system of markings on a flat surface.
I spend almost two hours in this one room, surrounded by Fukase’s black and white photographs. Each print is different owing to size and manner of making with some having been toned or printed on different kinds of paper although all have black frames with white mounts. Am not sure I know what the work is about yet I am left with a feeling for what it conveys and as a book of bird photographs, it wordlessly communicates something both real and stimulating.
The book by Fukase is mentioned in volume one of Parr and Badger’s History of the Photobook Volume 1, page 306, where it merits 3/4 of a page. The authors see the Raven as an ill omen end bird which apparently is the view in Japan also. I tend to see the Raven as an intelligent Corvid and although menacing in nature not a harbinger of the bad. There is something almost human in the antics of this bird with its’ raucous call and this tends to colour my reading of these images as a commentary not so much on a negative aspect of life rather it’s transcendent quality.
Parr and Badger suggest the work might be “a bitter indictment of the industrialised country, dehumanised and picked over by the natural scavengers of capitalism, the skies heavy with pollution” yet it is also “as vivid a picture of personal depression as has been depicted in photography.
Parr and Badger describe the book as “perhaps one of the most romantic of Photobooks” which works on “many levels – graphically, descriptively, technically, metaphorically“.
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2 thoughts on “Karasu: The solitude of Ravens; photographs by Masahisa Fukase

  1. I haven’t heard of the word ‘jizz’ before. Often get confused about the differences between ravens, crows and starlings but I was listening to the radio yesterday and the speaker was saying how they’ve been given a bad press. They usually mate for life and can be very playful. If that’s true then I can understand the solitude of being alone.

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