The winter 2016 edition of Source magazine featured a poll of various people involved in art photography to list the greatest photobooks of all time. Several of the books mentioned in the list were new to me and have led me to further investigations online. One of the books listed here is ‘Ravens’ by Masahisa Fukase, originally published in 1986. I subsequently discovered that the British Journal of Photography ran a similar poll in 2010 that had proclaimed this as the greatest photobook of all time.
Acquiring an actual copy of this book is going to be difficult at this time. It is rather expensive to buy, and although the UCA library has a copy it will not be practical to access it as a physical object just now. Selected images from the book are available but the most convenient way I have found to view the book at the moment is through a Vimeo posting from PhotoBookStore, with a finger ready over the ‘pause’ button.
Many – but not all – of the images in the book are of the titular ravens. The mood of the B&W photographs is generally dark, sombre, with much more emphasis on darker tones. There is little light present in any of the images. The set has been interpreted in different ways, as an exploration of the post-war Japanese psyche (BJP article), as mourning for the failure of his marriage (Wikipedia article), or describing his obsession with women he had previously photographed (Guardian article). That the book can be subject to such various interpretations is due to the impressionistic tone of the images, and the oblique connections between them. This becomes very much a work where the whole is much more than just the sum of the individual images. There is no light relief here; the overall effect is of sadness, isolation, despair even. However the use of the ravens as metaphor sidesteps any sense of self-pity, leaving a haunting sense of loss.
What further piqued my interest is that in all the books I have acquired on art in photography during my time studying with OCA – Marien, Jeffrey, Bright, Wells – there is not a single mention I can find of either Fukase or ‘Ravens’. I am at a loss to understand why this is should be as ‘Ravens’ predates all of these books. Although much of what counts as art history in these works is seen from a Western perspective, they do not ignore other cultures. I find this a bit of a puzzle.
Hasegawa, A. et al. (2017) Masahisa Fukase – ravens. London: MACK.