Masahisa Fukase, Private Scenes

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Prestel Publishing (here); French language version co-published by Atelier EXB (here). Hardcover, 24 × 19 cm, 192 pages, with 95 hand painted color photographs, and 31 monochrome photographs. Includes essays by Tomo Kosuga and Masako Toda. Design by François Dézafit. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Of the major Japanese post-war photographers, Masahisa Fukase was surely the most eclectic. For roughly thirty years, from 1961’s Kill The Pig to his 1992 incapacitation, he followed his muse down one strange rabbit hole after another. In his world, multiple exposures were as tantalizing as sidewalk cracks. At other points, his attention might be drawn to enormous push pinned Polaroids or the nine lives of feline alter egos (reviewed here). The sheer variety is head-spinning. Was the man who created the ominous Ravens (Karasu) the same person who enticed friends into drunken tongue-wrestling selfies? Yes indeed. Fukase contained multitudes. Most of them were addressed in the posthumous 2018 retrospective volume Masahisa Fukase, edited by Tomo Kosuga, director of the Masahisa Fukase Archives, and published by Xavier Barral. A steady flow of Fukase titles has trickled out in the years since, including reprints of Sasuke, Family (Kazoku), and Kill The Pig, by various publishers. 

Surveying these disparate photo projects, one steady through line is their therapeutic role. Photography was Fukase’s primary creative outlet. Beyond that, it was also his life counselor. He used pictures as a personal aide to work through whatever issues he might be dealing with at a given time. Major themes like marriage (Yoko), divorce (Ravens), and heritage (Family) might manifest quite differently as surface level images. But in Fukase’s mind all were vehicles of self analysis, a sentiment captured in his photo manifesto, “everything that appears in the frame is a reflection of myself.” 

The latest Fukase book Private Scenes leans into that thought, with literal “reflections of myself” from two late career exhibitions. The show Private Scenes—Letters From Journeys displayed monochrome self portraits at Ginza Nikon Salon in late 1990. Several months later Fukase expanded the project into painted abstractions with the huge show Private Scenes ’92 in the same space. Unwittingly, this double feature presaged an introspective bookend to his career. In June 1992, Fukase fell down a Golden Gai stairwell and suffered permanent brain damage. He took no more photos and had no more exhibitions until his death in 2012. 

Private Scenes is divided into two parts, sequenced in order of the exhibitions. Private Scenes—Letters From Journeys comes first, setting the stage with a short burst of monochrome adventures. At this point in the project, Fukase was still tinkering with what exactly Private Scenes would be, and he often applied the self-portraiture device metaphorically. With a little imagination he could see himself represented in a still life of skulls or a naked molar. A sequence of protozoan cells looks vaguely Fukasian, while other pictures capture snippets of his bare foot and hands barely edged into frame. “What would happen,” he had asked himself, “if I were to take these photos from a position I could reach with my own hand, rather than use a self-timer to take myself from afar?” Outer extremities are not the body parts typically thought to house one’s ego, but they are Fukase nonetheless. Cropped fingers and toes belong to a photographer with a playful eye, interjecting whatever limb was handy into his private scenes. 

Extremities aside, for much of the series the handiest body part was Fukase’s face. With his Nikon at arm’s length, he aimed back into his brain. He knew the camera’s frame of view well enough that he reliably could tuck himself into one corner, filling out the compositions with whatever was behind him. Private Scenes—Letters From Journeys documents initial forays with a background swan, museum diorama, church steps, and cemetery, among other subjects. Fukase peers out from the edge of each photo, a bemused and unfocused Zelig. If we didn’t know any better, we might assume from the pictures that he was included by accident or photobomb. In some ways his reverse views anticipate the selfie phenomenon which would become a touchstone of the smartphone generation. But Fukase’s pictures are deliberately uncentered and unflattering. His skin sags. Shadows fall across his nose and ego. There are no pouting duck lips or fashion statements, just blunt recordings of an aging observer. They owe more to Lee Friedlander’s Self-Portrait than Kim Kardashian’s Selfish. 

These proto-selfies of cornered faces became something of a running gag. Not only did Fukase continue to take them, he began to use the prints as canvases for wildly painted abstractions. Sometimes his paint strokes reacted to underlying photographic forms, sometimes they followed alternatives whims. They might trace Kanji characters, broad color washes, or doodled splotches. As self portraits these painted prints reveal a photographer untethered, following artistic whims wherever they might lead. Fukase’s Private Scenes ’92 exhibition featured hundreds of such photos, hung without fuss as unframed prints. Cornered self-portraits were just one component, along with friendly tongue-wrestling (Berobero), underwater bathtub self-portraits (Bukubuku), and painted pavement cracks (Hibi).

The three latter series have been stripped from the current book (Hibi was printed as a separate book by MACK in 2017), leaving just the cornered self-portraits. This seems a wise decision since there is more than enough material here without them. The large second section of Private Scenes collects several dozen painted photographs, one or two per spread. Printed on semi-gloss satin stock, the pages collect fingerprints rather easily (recalling the thumb prints of early Ravens prototypes). Perhaps it’s an invitation for the reader to leave their own self-impression? 

In any case, the profligacy, variety, and compulsive nature of Private Scenes ’92 is inspiring. Fukase explored widely and shot often. A passing photo might capture him by a dish rack, a temple, or city bus. Fukase stands inside each exposure, but his figure is often amorphous and indistinct. Sometimes his face is blown out by flash. In other photos it fades into shadow or background patterns. His bucket hat helps to identify his rough form, and after browsing dozens of pictures we learn what to look for. But the Where’s-Fukase task is never simple. As for the over paintings? These seem to be expressions of pure id, as inventive as they are unplanned. If Private Scenes—Letters From Journeys marched to a conventional beat, Private Scenes ’92 squonked like Albert Ayler.

Taken together, both exhibitions represents Fukase’s swan song. Knowing that fact, and the tragic circumstances of his final twenty years, it’s tempting to read his fate into Private Scenes. Did he sense somehow that his photo opportunities were narrowing? “This act [of photography] may represent my own revenge play against life,” he once told Camera Mainichi, “and perhaps that is what I enjoy most.” Viewing these colorful eruptions, his enjoyment is palpable. They might be viewed as willful declarations of existence. Here I am, they seem to say, you won’t be rid of me so easily. A revenge play against life? Yes, perhaps.

More than ten years after his death, Fukase’s tenacity has been proven and rewarded. The Masahisa Fukase Archives are going strong with Tomo Kosuga at the helm. Private Scenes is the latest evidence, but surely not the last. We can probably expect more photobooks in the future, and reprints of older monographs. They may vary widely depending on the project, but all will be Fukase. 

Collector’s POV: Masahisa Fukase is represented by the Masahisa Fukase Archives in Tokyo (here), with gallery support from Michael Hoppen Gallery in London (here), among others. While his iconic photobook Karasu (Ravens) regularly appears in auctions of rare books (fetching as much as $4000 a few years ago), his primary photographic work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with recent prices ranging from $5000 to $95000.

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Read more about: Masahisa Fukase, Éditions Xavier Barral, Prestel Publishing

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