When photographer Masahisa Fukase was in his first year of high school, his father bought him his first camera. The thinking was that if he was going to take over the family business, it was about time he got to know more about photography.
For three generations the Fukase family had run a photography studio in Bifuka, a small provincial town in the northern Japanese province of Hokkaido. And the responsibility as the eldest son had fallen on Fukase to eventually take over. In 1952, age 18, Fukase left home to study photography at Ni-hon University College of Art, again another step to prepare him in taking over the family business.
But Fukase’s path completely changed when he threw himself into a new relationship in the spring of his graduation year. Having moved in with his new beau, he started working in an ad agency in Tokyo as a photographer, turning his back on being a studio photographer and running the family business. “I then became completely preoccupied with my own daily life, with little time to think about what was happening back at home,” the photographer recalls, writing in 1991. “My younger brother took over the business and more than ten years passed.”
It wasn’t until 1971, then aged 35, that Fukase returned home, missing his family, and the Fukase Photographic Studio. It was on these visits that the photographer realised his family made the perfect subjects, and so from 1971 to 1989, he began taking portraits of his family members with the large-format Anthony view camera that was on the first floor of the studio. Fukase’s mother and father feature throughout the series, as well as his younger brother and his wife, as well as other members of the growing family. However the photographer wanted to take these portraits to the next level:
“At the time, I had a rather pretentious streak, and I wasn’t satisfied with ordinary, run-of-the-mill group lineups, so to add a bit of spice, and as an interesting variation, I had stage actresses and dancers from theatrical companies come and join us, and stand semi-nude,” explained Fukase when the series was first published.
The result is an amusing parody of the traditional family portrait that is both theatrical and personal at the same time. While Fukase plays on the unexpected, a sobering and very real aspect of the project is how the portraits change over time. Every few years the group gets smaller through separations, relocations and deaths within the family. Unusually, Fukase honours lost family members, like his father and his young niece, by having the remaining family members hold their photographs within the portrait, sometimes still smiling as though they were there physically.
In one of the last shots of the series in 1989, the image simply contains Fukase, his brother, his mother posing with a commemorative portrait of his father. The solemn undertone is a stark difference to the joyful silliness to Fukase’s earlier portrait, and was was taken just as the Fukase Photographic Studio was about to be closed down after 80 years of business.
Family is one of Fukase’s most personal series of works. Through his posed portraits, the photographer manages to convey warmth and intimacy initially offset by the presence of nude strangers. As time goes on however, there’s a shift in the series and it eventually takes on the form of an archive, a physical way of remembering his family and the legacy of the Fukase Photographic Studio. When reflecting on the series the photographer said: “My entire family, whose image I see inverted in the frosted glass, will die one day. This camera, which reflects and freezes their images, is actually a device for archiving death.”
In 1992, the year after Family was published, Fukase suffered a near-fatal fall down the stairs of his favourite bar in Tokyo. It resulted in a traumatic brain injury and left him incapacitated. It was the end of his career as a photographer. Fukase died in 2012 and it’s only until recently that the wealth of material left by the photographer has been discovered, thanks to the Masahisa Fukase Archives.
London-based publisher MACK has republished Family in a new edition with hardback embossed cover accompanied by the original introduction Fukase wrote back in 1991. There is also a short essay by Tomo Kosuga, founder and director of the Masahisa Fukase Archives.