30 October 2019

Performance Portraits Revealing the Death of a Family

30 October 2019 - Written by Colin Pantall

In the summer of 1971, the great Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase began making studio portraits of his family. Over the next 20 years, he made portraits that became monuments to failed relationships, to death, and to the power of photography to both record and destroy life.

Spread of the book Family by Masahisa Fukase, published by MACK, 2019

The portraits start easy enough. They show a family group comprising Fukase’s parents, his brother and sister, their partners and their children. His mother and father are smiling (they seem delighted), while his sister Kanako has a slightly sad, direct gaze. It’s all pretty run-of-the-mill except for the woman on the left. This is Fukase’s second wife, Yoko. She’s wearing only a koshimaki, a traditional cotton waist wrap, her long hair covering her bare chest.

Turn the page and there are variations of this image. Yoko has her back turned while the rest of the family looks to the camera, the family has their back turned while Yoko looks at the camera, and then everybody has their back turned.

You can read these variations as a metaphor for the relationship between photographer, camera, and subject. You can also read it as a metaphor for Fukase’s own relationships with both Yoko and other women in his life (Fukase’s most famous work - Ravens - was a memorial to his divorce from Yoko).

Spread of the book Family by Masahisa Fukase, published by MACK, 2019

Yoko left Fukase soon after these pictures were made and cited photography as a barrier that came between them. “In the ten or so years of our marriage,” she wrote in 1973, “he has only seen me through the lens of a camera, never without. And in fact what he saw through the lens was not me, but nothing other than himself.”

Yoko was just the longest in many failed relationships, and after each relationship breakdown, Fukase would experience an existential crisis that questioned his very being. “Taking photographs does not make you a photographer, and living doesn’t make you alive. At the end of the day, who am I, really?” he wrote.

So there’s a playfulness and a tragedy embedded in those early portraits and it’s replicated as we go through the album. There are more group portraits, each with a woman appearing naked from the waist up, wearing only the traditional koshimaki.

Spread of the book Family by Masahisa Fukase, published by MACK, 2019

Has Fukase found new partners, who are these women? “At the time, I had a rather pretentious streak, and I wasn’t satisfied with ordinary, run-of-the-mill group line ups, so to add spice… I had stage actresses and dancers from theatrical groups come and join us, and stand semi-nude, clad only in koshimaki in a few of the shots”, he writes.

It’s a banal answer but at the same time, there’s a sense they are replicating the figure of Yoko (who, sick of only being seen through a camera viewfinder, has sought her luck elsewhere). It’s an idea that conforms to the very autobiographical nature of Fukase’s work, but also to a veneer of playfulness most evident in the image of Fukase leaping joyously with one of the models. “My material always starts with what is nearest, with the people I can reach out and touch”, he wrote in 1982.

Further portraits show Fukase, his parents and a model posing in traditional undergarments, a nod both to the transformations in 20th century Japanese history and the western haircuts and suits some his family members begin to wear.

Family is a tragic autobiography though, one in which Fukase embeds his own failures in relationships and business (the photographs, said Fukase were taken by “myself, the third-generation son, the loser”) into the fading mortality of the family.

Spread of the book Family by Masahisa Fukase, published by MACK, 2019

So we see Kanako posing with her daughter Miyako, and then Miyako is gone, dead at the age of 5. The next picture shows Kanako holding a memorial portrait of her deceased daughter, a truly sorrowful touch. As they age and become frail, Fukase poses his parents (and himself) in funeral attire in preparation for memorial photographs. His father Sukeso dies in 1987 and the memorial photograph reappears in the final portrait. By the end of the book, the family has shrunk, the studio where the pictures are made is about to close, and Fukase is soon to fall down the stairs of his favourite bar and fall into a twenty-year coma from which he never awakens.

“My entire family, whose image I see inverted in the frosted glass, will die one day,” writes Fukase. “This camera, which reflects and freezes their images, is actually a device for archiving death.”


Family by Masahisa Fukase

Published by MACK in September 2019

Hardback bound in black buckram, embossed in red foil // 31 x 23 cm // 80 pages // €50 £45 $55



Masahisa Fukase (1934 – 2012) is considered one of the most radical and experimental photographers of the post-war generation in Japan. He became world-renowned for his photographic series and subsequent publication Karasu (The English title: Ravens, 1975 – 1985), which is widely celebrated as a photographic masterpiece. His work has been exhibited widely at institutions such as MoMA, New York, the Oxford Museum of Modern Art, the Foundation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Colin Pantall

Reading time

5 minutes

PhMuseum 2023 Photography Grant

Apply to this 11th edition offering €10,000 in cash prizes, solo exhibitions at international festivals and more!

Apply now