We Are Family: Masahisa Fukase’s “Family,” and Guillaume Simoneau’s “Murder,” by Robert Dunn

Masahisa Fukase - Family

No question, Masahisa Fukase was one crazy cat.

His photobooks range from the slight (photos of sidewalk cracks, yep, just sidewalk cracks … except, well, some with paint on the prints, in “Hibi,” talked about here) to his masterpiece, “Ravens,” the “Macbeth” and “King Lear” of photobooks, reviewed by me for UK Photobookstore Magazine in two parts, one and two. Along the way Fukase has done books on the woman who would become his wife as she sweeps about abstractedly in a cape throughout a slaughterhouse (“Slaughter”), and then that wife, Yoko, after they were married, in “Yokoh,” an amazing book I hope Mack can rerelease; and the widest view of a marriage I’ve yet seen, from brilliant wedding photos, to Yoko cutting up here, there, and everywhere, to photos of her pulling faces suggesting she could have been one of the great actresses of her time. There’s also a book on Fukase’s father (“Memories of Father”); assorted other books of photos abstract and mysterious (“Ravens” of course being the most powerful); and at least three books on his cats—yes, his cats—one of which, “The Strawhat Cat,” I just declined to purchase at the recent New York Art Book Fair because, well, I’m not a cat guy; and, really, it’s just photos of his cat. (Side note: we just got a new Shih Tzu puppy, Yumi, and so far I’ve resisted taking photos of him, though he’s awfully cute. On any fifteen-minute walk around NYC, at least five people will stop us and oogle and pet him. Perhaps after finishing this piece on Fukase, I’ll succumb.)

Fukase also did a book in 1991 called “Kazoku” (“Family”) that is most likely the oddest, most startling family album ever; a book now beautifully reprinted by Mack. A family album is … well, just that, photos any of us might take of our family, then put together into a scrapbook or actual book. It’s most likely done as a memory piece, who we were, where we were, how we’ve changed, and is thus autobiographical, though my guess is people using the local CVS drugstore to put together a collection of their iPhone photos, or simply posting them on Facebook, do not think that they’re actually creating something as soundingly serious as an autobiography. That is, I don’t know if the book of shots of you and your folks at Disneyland, and Uncle Jeff hitting another Bud, and Aunt Alice showing us her old Disco moves … is that an autobiography? My life, contemplated, summed up?

Well, it is a life. And that’s what Fukase has given us in “Family,” in spades. Of course most of us don’t have a family-owned photography studio, as the Fukases did in Hokkaido in northern Japan until 1990, and most of us don’t have family members willing to pose for formal group portraits time after time, especially when the first of them, and many others, have the photographer’s wife topless.

Yes, in 1971, Fukase’s first family portrait has most of his close family, all dressed in regular clothing except for his wife, Yoko, who stands there in a long white cotton waist-wrap, and nothing else. Her near waist-length hair covers her bare breasts, more or less, at least for the first few photos. In the sixth shot in the book, taken a year later, Yoko is replaced in the exact same position and dress by H, a dancer; and in the seventh shot, this prized position is taken by M, a singer, whose hair is far too short to cover her breasts, which are simply, and somewhat surreally, present, along with the rest of Fukase’s family in exactly the same position as in each of the previous photos.

Then things get even stranger. The eighth photo puts K, an actor, in the pole position, standing as straight and unengaged as can be; but then in the following shot, K is crouched down, standing on her left foot, her right leg crossed over her left knee, hands up and bent over with pinkies lifted, and her face going goofy, eyes pinched to the center, cheeks bulbous as if she’s about to blow out a long stream of cartoon air. Everyone else, of course, is posing as usual for Masahisa’s latest family gambit.

One fine thing about “Family” is that Mack includes two well-written, essential essays. (Essays worth reading? A rarity in photobooks in my experience.) One is Fukase himself writing about his life, the other is from Tomo Kosuga, the director of the Masahisa Fukase Archives, writing about how “Family” came to be.

The Fukase family photo studio in Bifuka, we learn, was very successful (it’s pictured in the book’s first shot, in its prime), and Masahisa was expected to take over the studio as the third generation. But after he went to Tokyo to study photography at the Nihon University College of Art, he shacked up with a woman and stayed on in the capital. His brother took over the family business, and Masahisa didn’t return for ten years, when, in 1971, he headed home with Yoko.

Clearly the family was happy to have him back, posing willingly for the very proper family portrait, smiling and not batting an eye at the semi-naked woman to their right. As I described above, the family photos continued over this visit, and then the next, all the while Fukase trying out this and that. After the contorted-actress photo, the next is of just Fukase’s parents, then Fukase and his father, Sukezo in their underwear, then Sukezo and an actress both bare from the waist up, then Fukase and the actress also bare from the waist up, then both of them disporting wildly, one foot kicking high, arms thrust out, laughing joyously and/or demonically.

The whole book is this way, creative riffs on professional family portraits. You can just hear Fukase go, “Smile now—cheese!” In one photo with Fukase in the far left position he’s even holding his camera’s shutter cable; in another with him in it, an assistant snaps the photo. There are photos of just Fukase and his father in traditional dress, then one of Fukase and Yoko also in traditional dress. (The essay tells us that the white cotton waist-wrap was traditionally worn underneath a kimono.) In one way, “Family” is an exuberant exploration of what a creative genius can do with the most limited of subjects and photographic approaches. What is also impressive is that Fukase never goes too far, never has his family, say, acting too outrageously or without dignity, never cheapens the solemnity of the family portraits. No, he just makes them like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Then things change. Well, the time has changed … the next set of photos is from 1985, ten years on. Sukezo has had a serious fall, and looks far more than ten years older, feeble and gaunt. One of Fukase’s nieces, Miyako, has died, and a framed photo of her, lovingly held by her mother, is in the place Miyako stood in the earlier sets of photos.

The 1985 photos are really not that much different from the earlier sets, the family members grouped in the same places as before, the same “Say cheese” posing, similar expressions, ranging from somewhat forced smiles to more dour bemusement at the whole situation. Oh, and more nude women on everyone’s far right.

This repetition also speaks to Fukase’s genius, the way the whole “Family” photos suggest both an impromptu “Hey, let me take everybody’s picture” and a simultaneous knowledge of what he’s up to: I’ll take these family shots every time I’m up here, everyone in the same positions, and the most minute yet profound changes will tease and move the viewer. My simple thirty-four photos will be a family saga to rival a literary family saga such as “The Sound and the Fury.”

Then Fukase’s father, Sukezo, dies, and the story comes to its inevitable end. The family business is shuttered (the final photo in the book is of the empty building) and the family dispersed. In his essay, Kosuga hits this note hard, talking about how “the decay of the family setting … brings to mind the way that a dead body gradually decomposes, leaving nothing but bleached bones.” I don’t know if I’d go that far. Time is inexorable, so is death. For me the greatness of “Family” is how all of that is captured so simply and quietly, and, again, almost inadvertently. Anyone taking photos of their family over twenty-eight years (the final shots have Sukezo memorialized in his own held-high picture frame) will show us time’s ravages, as well as death. That’s how it goes.

But in “Family,” Fukase does it as high art, trenchant, powerful, and true.

There are of course all kinds of families, if not of blood, then perhaps relations by artistic spirit. In my own photobooks, at my best, and most mysterious, I hope to share a small touch of Fukase’s vision. There’s another photographer who feels unusually close to Fukase, Guillaume Simoneau, whose book “Murder” has also just been published by Mack.

In his book Simoneau has shot a bar whose red-and-yellow neon letters spell out RAVENS. He’s also captured some nice sunsets, moody rocks, and crows whirling overhead in clear homage to “Ravens.” There are a lot of shots in the book that don’t add up, but there are also touches of poetry, as well as a deep examination of how one photographer can influence another. He’s followed Fukase’s footsteps, captured some dramatic scenery, and caught a few local denizens of Japan’s far north (though none with anything close to the startling appearance of the corpulent nude woman a third of the way into “Ravens”). A book mostly of straightforward photos, not the endless nightmarescape of Fukase’s book.

And that’s the thing here. At bottom, “Murder” is a book about homage, not invention. About crows, not ravens. Those black birds are the made-for-TV version of actual ravens, the unpleasant swarm you find picking around the garbage dump, not soaring ominously above misery trains hurtling through Japan’s far north. And even though an enclosed booklet by Shino Kuraishi called “Crows as Messengers of Good News” tries to play up the metaphorical presence of those black birds, I don’t see any photo in “Murder” with close to the ominous force of any single photo in Fukase’s masterpiece.

Of course, whose photos do? Fukase, who in his own essay calls himself “a loser”—to me, invoking another troubled genius who could turn static popular forms into mysterious beauty, and who blatantly wrote the song “I’m a Loser,” back in 1964—wasn’t emulating anyone when he stuck his camera out a train window in northern Japan to capture circling ravens. No, his ravens were real, as were his demons, his wild imagination, and his enduring pain.

Which brings up those cats again. I was way too cavalier earlier. In his essay on his life Fukase tells us that during World War II “even my pet cat Tama was taken [from me] to provide the fur for a fur-lined collar for some soldier fighting in the north.”

If “Family” is underlain with loss, so is all of life, everybody’s, of course, though few have expressed it as simply and movingly (and strangely) as Masahisa Fukase. Will we see other books quite as metaphorically rich and sublime as “Family” and especially “Ravens”? My guess is, nevermore.

Family by Masahisa Fukase and Murder by Guillaume Simoneau 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, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.