Masahisa Fukase, Slaughter

JTF (just the facts): Published by Super Labo in 2015 (here). Softcover, 32 pages, with 19 black and white photographs. In an edition of 750 copies (with a choice between 5 different front covers, 150 copies of each). Includes texts by Yoko Fukase (now Miyoshi). (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Masahisa Fukase is regarded by many as one of the most influential figures in Japanese photography; along with Shomei Tomatsu, Eikoh Hosoe, and Daido Moriyama, he helped define a new aesthetic and temperament for photography in post-war Japan. His deeply melancholic and intensely personal images were a challenge to the Japanese audience at that time, often provoking unease, since the public expression of private feelings was generally considered distasteful. Today he is probably best known for his iconic work Karasu (Ravens), released as a photobook in 1986 by Sōkyūsha; it is routinely named as one of the masterpieces in the long tradition of Japanese photobook publishing. Its dark and grainy images of ravens (thought to be a bad omen in Japan) reflect the solitude and sense of loss Fukase felt after the break up with his wife Yoko, to whom he had been married for some thirteen years. This recently published photobook Slaughter (released by the Japanese publishing house Super Labo) adds another dimension to our understanding of their complex relationship.

Slaughter is the first publication since artist’s death in 2012. In the early 1960s, Fukase regularly visited a slaughterhouse in Shibaura, near Tokyo Port, as he was working on a project entitled Kill the Pigs! This book takes us back to 1963 and it captures the first moments of Fukase’s relationship with Yoko, a young woman he had met that summer – she was to become not only his model and muse but also his wife. For the first time (some fifty years later), Slaughter shows us the entire series of images taken in that particular summer session. Most of the photographs included have never been shown before, and the book reproduces them from Fukase’s vintage prints; the photographs were sequenced together following the advice of Yoko, who shared her memories of that summer with the publisher.

Fukase’s moody black and white photographs intermingle the cold atmosphere of the slaughterhouse and staged poses of Yoko. She was a willing collaborator (who had experience as a model) and gladly performed under Fukase’s direction;for this series, he asked her to wear a black wide cape, to paint her lips white and her hair was short and daring.

The first image in the book depicts the area around the slaughterhouse at dusk – it is dark and menacingly ominous, with a gang of ravens occupying the old wooden fence (was Fukase already captivated by ravens at that time?). What follows is a full bleed image of the frighteningly darkened interior of the slaughterhouse, where carcasses of dead animals and stains of blood on the white tiled wall create a bleakly gruesome atmosphere. Through this depressing darkness slowly appears the figure of Yoko, young and alluringly mysterious. The first image of Yoko in full size shows her standing in the yard of the butchery with horses and cows in the background – she wears a wide black cape as a young calf pulls one side of it and her confident female presence is unexpected and dissonant; are they both to be sacrificed? On subsequent pages, there are photographs of Yoko surrounded by various slaughtering hooks, strong ropes, steel work tables, and other fearsome metal tools.

The bold contrasts of these images unavoidably lead us to wonder how a man who is falling in love with a woman could possibly decide to photograph her in such a dark way: in a slaughterhouse, with its grim and terrifying atmosphere, decorated with blood and inhuman instruments of torture?

Here she is, in the corner, reduced to a tiny black spot, her face and lips an unsettling white as she stares at the floor, a rope with knots hanging from the ceiling. In another image, she sits against the wall between industrial metal cans, while a hosepipe forms a huge oxbow loop on the floor. One of the most strikingly symbolic settings finds Yoko lying quietly on the killing platform with the black cape covering her body, looking straight at us through the darkness. And then, Yoko slowly vanishes: we see her from the back, then only her reflection, and then finally sitting on the ramp with the cape blossomed out around her and her head down. With their striking sense of composition and beauty, Fukase finds a delicate balance between the harrowing environment and a purer visual essence.

In terms of construction, Slaughter has brown cover with a tipped in image available in five different choices. Its inside pages are slightly smaller than the cover (creating a nice cut) and are stitched together with white cotton. The end pages feature one full bleed image in sepia tone, perhaps an entrance to the slaughterhouse. The book also includes an essay “The Incurable Egoist” penned by Yoko back in 1973 for Camera Mainichi. In it, she writes: “I believe all photographs of me were unquestionably photographs of himself.”

Her conclusion was that Fukase used photography as a mirror – no matter who or what was in front of his lens, his pictures turned back and asked one main question: “Who (or how) am I?” If we follow this self-centered view, this series might well express Fukase’s fearful depression and repressed emotions, using Yoko and her innocence to stage these expressively gloomy photographs. Or perhaps he saw her as some kind of shining, counterbalancing force, a bastion of strength amid the surreal horror he felt encroaching all around him. Either way, the intensity of these photographs is undeniable.

Fukase died in 2012 from a traumatic brain injury he incurred falling down the stairs at the bar he frequented; he had been in a coma for two decades. Throughout all those years, Yoko visited him at the hospital, twice a month; it seems she never stopped loving him. It requires a strong commitment to be with an artist of such energy and vision. The pictures in this thin but powerful volume were apparently just the start.

Collector’s POV: Masahisa Fukase is represented by the Masahisa Fukase Archives in Tokyo (here). 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 little consistent secondary market history.

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