top コラムExhibition ReportVol.31 Masahisa Fukase Exhibition「深瀬昌久展」

Exhibition Report

Vol.31 Masahisa Fukase Exhibition「深瀬昌久展」

John Sypal

Over the past few years Masahisa Fukase’s photographic legacy has seen greater exposure and reassessment. In 2023 alone Tokyoites were able to enjoy no less than three Fukase exhibitions. Inceased international interest has ensured that collections from his vast archive continue to be published, and 2024 is poised to see a Fuksase biopic in theaters.  


Writing on Fukase, particularly in English, has likewise increased. (In my opinion the very best of this is written by Lucy Fleming-Brown.) I don’t feel qualified to add to that conversation-- particularly in the academic arena.  As a black and white photographer / darkroom printer however, I’d like to share some thoughts on a unique experience from a recent Fukase exhibition at SAI in Tokyo.


SAI is a bright, crisp, and U-shaped gallery space in the new Miyashita park shopping complex in Shibuya. Located down the hall from the mall food court, it sits right next door to the Ghibli store, directly above the Tom & Jerry café. It’s safe to assume that most of the clientele of this complex could more readily tell you the names and three latest hair colors of their ten favorite K-pop idols than begin to guess who Masahisa Fukase might be. And that’s fine! A K-pop idol pop-up shop would feel just as out of place at TOP Museum. That’s part of the charm of this show- SAI brings a unique angle of artistic culture to a shopping complex that would normally have none. A Fukase exhibition in a place like this is delightfully edgy, if not downright subversive. But this subversive element wasn’t limited to the location alone.


The show, simply and practically titled “Masahisa Fukase Exhibition” was put together with the cooperation of photographer Masato Seto, Fukase’s former assistant. On the walls were forty-six framed prints, with the thematic core of being large prints from Fukase’s legendary Ravens series. Seeing these images in person and in silver-gelatin is always a treat. In addition to all the Ravens, the other two wings (!) of the gallery featured a selection of vintage prints of photographs taken in Tokyo in the 1970s & 1980s.  Seto, who recently published a memoir on his time with Fukase, gave a talk in the gallery on the opening day of the exhibition. 


As I mentioned, there were three Fukase exhibitions in Tokyo in 2023. (I wrote about my favorite of them in Vol. 19 of this column: What sets the SAI show apart was not the images themselves, but how they were made available to gallery visitors.


On a wide table in the center of the gallery sat two shallow, B4-sized storage boxes. In them were a total of about 300 original silver gelatin workprints made by Fukase himself. Astonishingly, rather than be kept in a glass case, visitors were allowed to sit down at the benches on either side of the table and, after donning on a mask and white gloves, look through the stacks at their leisure.  It’s hard to understate how incredible this was as an experience- and an idea.  


I mentioned “subversion” earlier- and this sort of generosity is itself subversive. Leaving open boxes of lose, vintage prints by Masahisa Fukase on a table was impressively subversive in its denial of photo-art-object preciousness and in how it put a visitor’s tactile encounter with them ahead of monetary value. Such a caviler stance in the face of potential damage or (god forbid) theft is hard to imagine happening anywhere. I doubt that a Parisian gallery would leave out a few hundred Cartier Bresson prints in a shopping mall- nor would an American gallery put out stacks of Robert Frank workprints a few doors down from a Panda Express. Actually, prior to this show I couldn’t imagine it happening in Tokyo, either.

And yet, there they were. 



Everyone I spoke to about this was impressed. Some noted that since the prints were unsigned, they weren’t really all that valuable. Maybe?  (There were a few I’d personally like to own, signed or not).  I don’t know the full backstory of the prints- but I know that they were provided by Seto and some had annotations for their use as masters for magazine publication. A darkroom printer myself, I know that prints can literally stack up and take over shelf and then floor space. I assume that Fukase’s print archives could probably be measured in the hundreds of kilograms- and so that a few boxes were in the hands of an assistant and likely (by both) mis-remembered seems normal.  Japan at the time did not have much of a Fine Art Print market and despite his current stature in Photographic Pantheon, it’s important to understand that photographers in the 70s & 80s were more casual when it came to archiving work and storage. I’m no Masahisa Fukase, but I still find boxes full of prints that I’ve forgotten about in my apartment. When it comes to archiving things, “I’ll do it someday” is a fairly common thing photographers say.  


Back to the prints. Most were 10x12 in size and all had curled. Quite a few had yellowed. I believe that all were fiber-based prints- many were on single-weight paper- and most were brilliantly glossy thanks to a ferrotype finish. Some had fixer stains and scratches- others creases or bent corners. They were jumbled in theme and, spanning decades, time.  As you (carefully!) worked your way through the stacks obvious thematic chunks appeared- family, cats, Yoko, family, etc. These were identifiable by content and paper stock. Darkroomers tend to use what’s at hand. I don’t know how to put it- in these prints I recognized a comradery- a darkroom universality. It was precisely due to the variety in papers and tones (and plenty of dust spots!) that I felt a connection of sorts to the artist. 


My experience here was unexpectedly moving. There’s obviously the Image aspect- and most were indeed interesting. The Image aspect is tied to the Historical and Technical aspects, with everything bound by the prints’ inherent physicality. Were they “good” pictures? Masterpieces?  Did they have to be? No. Of course not. And yet, and yet…


I’ll be the first to admit that I have a conservative, sentimental streak when it comes to photography.  Still, why these silver gelatin objects affect me (you? us?) in such a way that aa pile of Crtl-P’ed inkjet prints couldn’t, I can’t explain. 


Maybe this wasn’t a time or place for explanation. 

Maybe there never needs to be. Sitting at that table in a clean white room in a Shibuya mall, this experience with these sheets of magic silver-coated paper proved that photography is at its best when one relishes its capacity for mystery. 

At times this pleasure can be enough.















本連載の Vol.19(では、特にお気に入りの展覧会について書いています。SAIの写真展が他と違うのは、写真そのものではなく、来場者にどのような形で提供されたのかということです。










この話を聞いた人は皆、感心していました。「サインされていないプリントにそれほど価値はない」と指摘した人もいます。ある意味そうかもしれません(サイン入りであろうとなかろうと、個人的に所有したいと思うものがいくつかあったけど…)。 詳しい経緯はわかりませんが、瀬戸さんから提供されたこれらのプリントには、雑誌掲載用の原版として使用するための注釈がついているものもあります。














Masahisa Fukase Exhibition





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