True story: I was twenty, on a beach in San Diego, California, reading Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s sprawling God/devil-bedizened tale of Ahab’s obsession with his white whale, when I read a sentence so beautiful and powerful I pulled my gaze away from the page, lifted back my head, and a shaft of light beamed from the sky straight at me. Unforgettable, transcendent, probably the moment I realized I would become a novelist and photographer, and be those all my life.
I bring up white whales and skies bright (and dark) with light and transcendence, and natural beasts manifest as symbols so powerful they still rock the heavens … bring all this up because Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens is exactly that kind of book, a tale of obsession finding focus on natural-world symbols, in this case profound heartbreak searching out possible solace (or ongoing despair?) in endlessly shooting ravens from a train window. The photographer Stacy Oborn, in an essay entitled The Art of Losing Love, explains well how Ravens came about: “Fukase’s best-known work was made while reeling from loss of love [after his wife of 13 years left him]. While on a train returning to his hometown of Hokkaido, perhaps feeling unlucky and ominous, Fukase got off at stops and began to photograph something which in his culture and in others represents inauspicious feeling: ravens. He became obsessed with them, with their darkness and loneliness.”
Darkness and loneliness. No question Ravens contains that. Inauspicious feeling? Ditto. Ominous? Oh, yeah, a whole lot of that, too. But what else does a reader find in the book? As with Melville’s white whale, different projections of meaning onto the beast are manifold. Is Ravens a memory/comment on Japanese war planes coursing the skies? Is the line of birds on a sea-born concrete abutment hints of what awaits us all when we pass? Is the endless scatter of dark birds an expression of a soul exploding into pieces, then flying toward the aether? Or is the final shot, what looks like a homeless man plodding down a city street, a ripely-stained blanket over his shoulders, all that’s left you after you’ve spent your hours—far too many hours—with the ravens?
And if instead of reading a sentence so perfect the heavens open … if instead you feel a curse so dark and burdening that when you look skyward you see only wheeling ravens … and if you are that dark and burdened, could you possibly care what those ravens represent; what symbology is manifest? My guess is that you’re more concerned with whether your train gets to its station on time, and why your heart won’t heal.
Train schedules and broken hearts were Fukase’s burden; it’s our blessing that he turned his life into astonishing art. With the new version of Ravens so widely available (thank you again, Mack!), I’m sure there will be countless exegeses and theses on the meanings of the book. If that’s to happen, though, it’s worth considering this passage from Ernest Hemingway, talking about his own beast-laden book, The Old Man and the Sea: “There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is the old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are sharks, no better, no worse.” Perhaps Ernie’s being a tad disingenuous, but his point’s worth keeping in mind.
So no further here about an interpretation of Fukase’s ravens; instead I’ll talk about how he has created a work so worthy of interpretation, the power of his astonishing artistic vision, that quality that allows him to turn everything he photographs, with whatever intention, or none at all, into powerful and moving art.
First off, there’s not a shot in the book that doesn’t swell with dark feeling. I’m just randomly opening pages now: page 87, specks of ravens atop a thick sheath of winter trees, the photo all grays and smudges; page 37, a bird (raven? dead?) centered in a flood of snow on land; page 12, a photo bisected on the diagonal by a row of ravens at the top of a bramble of branches, their eyes unearthly glowing white dots; page 71, another twist of dark branches swelling with a flock of ravens, a shot very much in the muted spirit of a Japanese watercolor; page 117, a raven, wings fully extended, flying only feet above a striped crosswalk on a road; and page 79, a smudgy scatter of ravens on telephone lines above a snowy landscape, clearly one more shot grabbed in a flash from the window of Fukase’s train hurtling north.
I note all these photographs to show that there’s not a banal shot in the book, each one—flocks of ravens streaming the sky, a solitary bird a bare speck above us—rich and evocative. The book is dark. Heck, raven means dark; raven-haired, raven-souled.
Which gets me thinking. In a way, we are what we shoot; what grabs us, draws our cameras, the subjects we give ourselves up to. But of course you or I could take pictures of ravens (if we could find some; last time I checked, not too many in New York City or London), and chances are what we’d come up with would just be pictures of birds, not shots redolent with mystery and implication. Still, Moby-Dick is about an eerie albino whale, not a guppy; and even the marlin in the Old Man and the Sea is a hoary one, a repository of countless years of struggle and determination. It matters what we choose to shoot (or what chooses us), of course it does.
It just matters more how we shoot it. A touch of the magic of photography is that there are a gazillion ways to shoot a subject, but perhaps only one or two that are the right way. The great photographer finds that correct one. He or she cannot, let’s say, take a bad photo; or at least publish one that isn’t worthy.
That is, great photography always comes down to how it’s done; a mix of vision, determination, passion, and, yes, choice of subject. But vision is paramount, and in Fukase’s case, his vision is so compelling and strong that everything he shoots, raven or not, is original, artful.
Which leads me back to his cat books.
In Part One of this review I mentioned the recent publication of Afterword (the new volume of Fukase’s cat photos) and the way, as he shot his beloved Sasuke, Fukase invested the feline with metaphorical power. It’s as if that’s Fukase’s gift/curse: Whatever he touches reeks of meaning.
In Afterword, the publisher, Roshin, cleverly mimics the original printing of Ravens: There on the felt cover is an embossed image of the cat, Sasuke. The opening, title-page photo is an extreme close-up, eyes warm if wary, below which Sasuke’s incisors look sharp and threatening. Ohhhh-kaayyyy, this cat ain’t just a cheery little critter.
There’s Sasuke out in a field as a kitten, already looking predatory. There’s the cat flying through the air like a bat; there he is draped somnolently over a cathode-ray TV showing what looks like a Dickens’ film; now he’s using his paws to play Go—the range of what Fukase has Sasuke do in the book is astonishing; like Bach’s Goldberg Variations, wringing every possible emotion from a small set of cat moves—and then, an extreme close-up again, Sasuke’s eyes bright with the devil, mouth and fanglike teeth a vision out of a nightmare.
That’s my point, of course: Fukase can shoot nothing but his beloved Sasuke and make the cat embody rich, full worlds, of both reality and spirit.
And that’s just one (ostensibly) domesticated cat.
In Ravens, Fukase rings another world of variations on an essential theme: this time, the way these dark birds fill the sky, and our dreams and nightmares.
But the book is not all ravens, and that’s an aspect that truly intrigues me. That is, with a book called Ravens, and obsessed with same, why and when does Fukase interrupt the raven shots with those of something else? (Sasuke is in every photo in Afterword.)
Here’s a list, in order, of many of the photos clearly without ravens in them. (Some shots, especially of trees or fields, may not contain birds, but they’re too indistinct to be certain.) Page 19: Three blurred figures under a black cloud-shaped blob. Page 20: Less-blurred figures on a snowy street. Page 21: Three schoolgirls at a rudimentary bus stop inside a wooden hut. Page 22: Another blur of snowy northern buildings. (Four linked photos, then … more ravens.) Page 31: A small boat on a sea scattered with what look like ducks (not ravens). Page 43: A stalking cat … a photo implying threat at least as deep as the birds themselves do. Page 44: A corpulent nude woman, a masseuse, we’re told. Eyes closed, she doesn’t promise much comfort, though a comfort-woman she may be. Page 47: What looks like a big, scaly fish, its tiny eye prominent (and spooky). Page 63: A flurry of white snow globs rushing the camera lens just like … a flock of ravens. Page 93: A soaring flock of sea gulls … flooding the frame like ravens. Page 95: Dead fish on a seashore. Page 103: Three girls’ windblown black locks looking like … ravens wings. Page 105: A ship on a horizon, the sea filling one-fourth of the photo. Page 106: Beautiful shot of a calm sea, one person floating on their back, another striding to shore. Page 107: Ominous black bottom of a jet streaking the sky … yes, like a raven.
Then the final four photos in the book, not an actual raven to be seen. Page 119: What looks to be an explosion blowing detritus off a railing, filling the air. Page 121: A seated man in a trash-bestrewn parking lot, can of soda or beer in his hand. Page 123: A pair of cloth gloves aflame in what looks like a camper’s cookout. Page 124, the final photo in the book: A small picture, a beggar with a crumpled, dirty blanket on his back trudging down a city sidewalk.
There are sixty-some photos in Ravens, and by my count a little more than a third of them don’t have a raven in it. This is both an astonishing concentration of subject matter, and, in the non-raven shots, different themes and imagery underlying the basic obsession. Remember: What makes Moby-Dick great isn’t simply Ahab’s obsessive quest, it’s the microcosm of the world as embodied in the officers and mates and their own obsessions (nailed doubloons!) aboard the whaling ship Pequod.
Indeed, that’s part of the genius of Ravens (and Moby-Dick): all the other stories they tell.
I keep likening Fukase’s photobook to Melville’s novel, and obsession is one thing that binds them. But obsession is not all. The photos, every last one of them, stir us. It’s just that there are numerous photobooks with almost all stirring photos, but few that concentrate the attention, pull the reader so far out of themselves into another world, let us share—nigh, meld with—the furious mental typhoons and tornadoes ripping through the photographer’s mind.
There is, of course, one profound difference between any novel and a photobook: The novelist types away someplace inventing characters, and they act out their fates. The photographer has to be there, and the fate enacted has to be his or her own. I suppose in theory a photographer could shoot a whole book in character (might be interesting), but I can’t think of one off hand. (Cindy Sherman’s wide swarm of characters is something different.) In any case, the obsession at the heart of Ravens isn’t that of an invented mad ship captain but instead Fukase’s own.
It’s always an interesting question how much a photographer actually shoots what’s inside her or him. Some of the most interesting photographers (Arbus, Araki, even Cindy Sherman, perhaps) find a way to make images far more about their inner lives, their desires and despairs, than what the photo is ostensibly about. Count Fukase here as one of these tortured souls whose pictures clearly capture inner landscapes and voices. Storm-strewn towns? Flocks of black birds? Burning gloves? Shards and figments of his own inner life.
Would we wish that pain and torment on anyone? Probably not. But when that’s the way the world works, and one man’s dark visions become our own art, it’s our job to celebrate the achievement.
Kudos again to Mack for bringing this towering photobook back to life.
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.