Ravens by Masahisa Fukase, reviewed by Robert Dunn (Part I)

Imagine: There’s a novel that towers over all of 19th-century American literature, there’s a group of French poems that takes you where no other poetry book does, there’s an album of dark tunes by Britain’s (the world’s?) second-greatest rock band at the height of their powers … and you can’t read or listen to any of it. Sure, there’s a copy from years ago available of Moby Dick, but it costs minimum a few hundred dollars. Libraries don’t have it. Your friends don’t own it. You can’t even really see it online. Same with Une Saison en Enfer. Same with the rock ’n’ roll masterwork Aftermath. They’re all out there somewhere, you’ve heard about their greatness, but there’s no way you can even touch them.

Fortunately, with Melville, Rimbaud, and the Stones, that’s not the case; their works—probably all their works—are now and forever in print. But what about Masahisa Fukase’s superlative photobook, Ravens? Well, with Mack’s excellent new edition, just like that, a world-class masterpiece is back in our hands. For most, this will be the first opportunity ever to actually see, let alone own, the book. And for that, the publishing company deserves all the plaudits possible.

In a second part of this review, posted in a couple weeks, I plan to write about the work itself, what makes Ravens so extraordinary that a panel of experts famously called it the “best photobook of the past 25 years” (no argument here), but first I want to compare the new Mack edition with the original. I happen to own the original Japanese book from 1986 (I know, I know … and someday an heir can sell it and put somebody through coll—well, pay for at least a week or two at a top-drawer university).

I’ve just gone through both books closely. First impressions: Mack clearly worked from an original, coming up with a an almost exact nubby black cloth for the cover and embossing the solitary raven silhouette on the front just as in the original. (On the back of the book, the original publisher, Sōkyūsha, repeated the raven image; Mack goes with Fukase’s signature in roman text.) They’ve also gone with an almost exact paper for the innards, what looks like a silk-coated ultrawhite.

Can you fault Mack for trying to re-create a masterpiece as closely as possible, especially for its first true reproduction? Should they have changed paper stocks to, say, mimic the creamier, thicker, uncoated stock of Roshin’s recent book of Fukase’s cat photos, Afterword? Or even the paper on Mack’s earlier Fukase book, Hibi, which I reviewed here as a springboard to talking about … Ravens. My answer: Afterword and Hibi were original works, and since Fukase is no longer with us, you can’t take much issue with what a publisher chooses. But for a re-creation of an original work that is also a towering work of art? I think the first duty is to be true to the original.

I do have to admit I kind of wish Karasu (Ravens’ Japanese title) had originally been published back in the 1960s, when it would have been done up right in rich gravure. The photos in the book, all murky blacks and ominous forms, call out for thick slabs of ink, luminous whites, printing so rich you can almost smell it … but the original printing ain’t that, looks like duotone offset to me, and though it’s far more detailed and stronger than its only American edition, Bedford’s The Solitude of Ravens from 1991, I can’t say the original is better page by printed page than Mack’s new version. (The only version of Ravens I don’t own is Rat Hole’s, from 2008.)

There are differences between the original and Mack’s version. For one, the original puts page numbers below the images, in effect numbering them. Mack for some reason puts the page number on the facing page (on the left), which might be the correct page number but is confusing when talking about the actual photos. That is, photo number 75 in Karasu, an ominous sky of ravens, looks to be photo 74 in Ravens, since that’s the number across from it. Does this matter? Well, the next photo in the sequence is another ominous sky of ravens, this one with dots of lens flare, which is photo 77 in the original, ostensibly 76 in the Mack edition. A possibility for scholarly confusion looks to exist.

Enough on page numbering, what about the printing? To my eye the Mack prints look slightly darker, with a touch more contrast. In some photos—for instance, another ominous sky of ravens (Mack page 81)—the contrast brightens the whites, makes the shot more dramatic. On another, the well-known snap of two women on a boat shot from the back, their hair flying wing-like into the sun, the printing feels more lively in the original but more dramatic in the new version. There is also an arguable greater degree of detail in most of the Mack book’s prints. So the page 81 raven sky works better in the Mack book. But in others, Karasu has the slightly stronger print.

Here’s another example. Take the stark opening shot, a raven in dark silhouette (the same image stamped in relief on the covers). Both photos are startling—look, this black-birded beast, looming on the first page like a wrong turn in a nightmare—but Karasu has a powerful but, in comparison, more muted print of this dream image. Mack’s Ravens reproduces the stark form darker, and if darkness—boundless, literary darkness—is one of the chief points of Fukase’s book, I have to here give Mack the edge: Their silhouette is simply a more powerful springboard into the place the book’s about to take you … and a warning that it could be a place you might not wish to go.

Indeed, if inducing a primal, symbolic terror is an intention of  Fukase’s work, the photos most powerful in taking us there are stronger in the Mack version. I’m thinking now about the feral cat across from page 43. In part two of this review I’ll talk much more about cats in Fukase’s work, but this striking photo raises lots of questions: Is this feline here to stalk ravens? Would he have a chance of catching one? Or is this cat simply a cognate for the featured bird, another whip turn on the book’s shadowy carnival ride? I’ll go for the latter explanation—an aspect of Fukase’s genius, he spooks us no matter what he shoots—and if the darkling evocation is part of what he’s up to, I think the higher-contrast printing of the cat hits us harder, takes us further … except the longer I look at the Sōkyūsha print, the more I have to work to peer into the depths of this stalking cat, and in a way, the more I find. He’s no longer right up in my face, but that doesn’t make his diabolical purposes any less fearsome.

Then I turn the page. In part two of my review, I’ll be talking a lot more about the photos in Ravens that aren’t of ravens—the shots that pace the book, expand its meanings. And here’s one of the main ones: a corpulent, sagged-teat nude woman on a light-blanketed bed. We’re told this is a masseuse, and who’s to know. One thing she isn’t is a flock of whirling black birds in the sky.

Here Mack, as is customary, prints the woman with higher contrast. She’s definitely more there … but also less emotive and mysterious. In Mack she’s a woman on a bed, in Karasu she’s more human, and all invocation: of companionship for a lonely man, possible satisfaction (in a way Mick Jagger might’ve intended, though certainly not with a woman of her girth), even potential serenity; though of course in context, she’s as spooky as the stalking cat, the lumpy fish head that follows her, and all the rapid flutter of ravens’ wings gyring through the gray skies to come.

At bottom, though, I’d say that the Mack version available here is at least as good a book experience, and certainly no less true to Fukase’s dark vision. The book is beyond recommended; it’s essential.

And, yes, what of the photographer’s vision?

Read Part II here.


Ravens by Masahisa Fukase can be purchased here


Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Carnival of Souls are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here). In Spring 2017, Dunn taught a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.