Mirror, mirror: Masahisa Fukase


Masahisa Fukase, Bukubuku, 1991. © Masahisa Fukase Archives. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery

The legendary photographer Masahisa Fukase was born before the second world war and came of age in the defeat and devastation of post-war Japan. Fukase’s early photography documented slaughterhouses and refineries, yet when he met his wife Yoko in 1964 he began an obsessive series of portraits of her. It was this work that brought Fukase national acclaim. Yet Yoko chafed under the burden of his obsessive objectification and the stifling dullness of their life together. In 1976 she left him. 

Reeling from her abrupt departure, Fukase began to photograph ravens and crows, which are often understood as harbingers of evil days in Japanese mythology. The dark angularity of these images found their ultimate form as Karasu (The Solitude of Ravens), widely regarded as the greatest photobook of the last 30 years. When Fukase finished the project in 1982, he wrote that he had himself “become a raven”.

In 1992, drunk, Fukase fell down a flight of stairs when leaving a bar and suffered a traumatic brain injury that would leave him in a coma until his death 20 years later. While he lay comatose, his brain damage so severe he had no idea of his surroundings, Yoko returned to him, visiting twice a month. Just months before his fall, Fukase had shown his final photographic series in a book entitled Bukubuku (bubbling). Made up of 79 self-portraits taken in the bath with a waterproof camera, it is a sad and haunting vision of depression and misery: a man adrift in murky waters, with only small bubbles to show he is breathing. § 

Performing for the Camera, an exhibition of Fukase’s work, is showing at Tate Modern, London 18 February-12 June 2016.