“People often ask me why I take photographs of cats,” the late Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase wrote in 1978. “What an idiotic question! I’m a professional photographer — and I am mad about cats … It makes total sense. No one else comes close to the wealth of my experience with cats; no one understands their feelings better; and no one has spent more hours playing around with them in a mountain lodge.”
In the summer of 1977, Fukase adopted a small, furry subject. Sasuke, as the kitten was called, ran away shortly thereafter, but Fukase — desperate to recover his new-found, playful model — soon adopted another kitten, also named Sasuke, and later another nicknamed Momo. The cats became the protagonists of hundreds of Fukase’s 35-millimeter film snaps and three of his books in the late 1970s. But Fukase’s high contrast, black and white photos of felines are nothing like the cute cat pics we’re used to seeing today. Instead, the images in Sasuke (Atelier EXB, 2021) — a new release of cat pictures from Fukase’s archives — constitute a complex, closely observed kind of self-portrait.
Fukase’s photos capture cats in experimental, unexpected ways. In some, the photographer snaps the animal at arm’s length, holding it over a rice field in the countryside or in front of an elephant enclosure at the zoo. In others, the picture is framed just behind the cat’s ears, as if we ourselves are the cat. These odd angles and curious compositions blur the boundaries between the “me who does the looking” and the “me who is being looked at,” as Fukase said in 1991. And a set of closely-cropped photos of his cats yawning, with their stiff whiskers, soft fur, sharp teeth, and prickly tongues in full view, has an intensely tactile quality. “For Fukase, photographing Books,Masahisa Fukase,Photography was also a way of caressing them,” says Tomo Kosuga, the director of the Masahisa Fukase Archives, in a recent interview with the book’s publisher.
Born to a family of photographers in Bifuka, Hokkaido, in 1934, Fukase was immersed in the medium from an early age. He moved to Tokyo to study and settled there, adopting a cat to deter the rats that infested his first apartment. However, despite his successes with publishing his work in magazines and exhibitions — including a milestone show of Japanese photography at the MoMA in New York — Fukase’s obsession with photographing the people he was close to overwhelmed his subjects and eventually drove them away.
“One of the reasons the animals attracted him is that they don’t speak,” Kosuga wrote in a recent email to Hyperallergic, noting that Fukase once said, “I don’t trust humans, but I trust cats.” His cat series emerged after the artist’s second divorce, as he struggled with a number of personal issues. “The one presence that did not leave him, and stayed with him through thick and thin, gazing back at him unflinchingly, were his cats,” Kosuga writes in the book. A fall in 1992 left Fukase in a coma until his death in 2012.
And so, for Fukase, whose camera was the link between himself and the most important things in his world, cats were much more than cute. Photographing them was a way of embodying the love he felt so profoundly that it shifted his sense of self. “I spent so much time lying on my belly in an effort to get on the same level as a cat,” Fukase wrote in 1978, “that I became a cat … I saw myself reflected in the cats’ eyes. I wanted to photograph the love that I saw there. You might say it’s a collection of self-portraits more than shots of Sasuke and Momo.”
Sasuke by Masahisa Fukase is published by Atelier EXB and is available online.
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