It would be a mistake to think of Masahisa Fukase’s ‘The Solitude of Ravens’ as black and white photography. The images in this enigmatic cult collection are entirely black, in mood and in tone.
Created over a ten-year period from the mid-70s to the early 80s, the collection coincides with Fukase’s divorce from his wife, Yoko and its aftermath. They speak of melancholy, loneliness, even despair. With just a slight change in avian subject matter, they'd be the perfect visual accompaniment to Ted Hughes’s poetic magnum opus, ‘Crow’.
But it's not crows, it's ravens that form the main subject matter of the series - and yet these are no nature studies. Nor are they in any way technical exemplars. Fukase seems to revel in flat monotones and a narrow-gauge black-to-grey spectrum. Some of the images are blurred and many were shot at night, with the ravens’ eyes pulsing eerily out of the frame like extra-terrestrial jewels. The birds are either depicted as solitary creatures or else mass hauntingly together in the upper branches of nondescript trees. Occasionally his camera gets in close and focuses on the glossy beauty of a single bird's plumage or a cruel and purposeful claw.
In other images his attention wanders. We get to see a cat; a plane; a factory; a group of girls on a boat, their hair rising in the wind. Then there's an arresting shot of a naked older woman too and her rolls of flesh, but somehow these random departures only serve to underline the magnetic appeal of his main theme.
In the world of myth, the raven is a messenger or seer; a battlefield scavenger, but Fukase’s ravens don’t need the weight of further allusions. They are already a perfect metaphor for his state of mind.
In some ways it's hard to say why these photographs have become quite so legendary. It's very easy to imagine some viewers seeing nothing much of value here at all. Personally, I find the collection mesmeric.
The hard-backed monograph of 'The Solitude of Ravens' is now out of print, whilst the 1992 paperback version is available for around £500 from specialist booksellers and the original1986 Japanese first edition fetches many thousands of pounds. Rarity has helped the legend grow, for sure, but I think it’s worth the hype. Perhaps because the images en masse are so appealingly bleak, gothic and claustrophobic - and perhaps because their true subject is that most thrilling piece of bloody carrion of all: the human heart.