Books

'Family': Masahisa Fukase's portrait parodies detail the decline of a Japanese clan

by Iain Maloney

Contributing Writer

The advent of selfies and Instagram has fundamentally shifted the way we think about photography. Perhaps one of the more welcome casualties of this change is the posed family portrait.

Family, by Masahisa Fukase, Translated by Lucy North.
80 pages
MACK, Photography.

Famed Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase, born in 1934, seems to have had little patience for the most conservative of photographic forms. This collection, first published in Japan in 1991 and here reissued with two essays translated by Lucy North — one by Fukase, the other a retrospective by Tomo Kosuga, director of the Masahisa Fukase archives, following Fukase’s death in 2012 — turns the idea of the family portrait on its head, simultaneously reinvigorating and ridiculing it.

Fukase was the eldest son of a family that had been running a successful photography studio in Bifuka, Hokkaido, for two generations. He left for university in Tokyo and was expected to return after graduation to take over the family business. Fukase had other ideas, leaving his younger brother to run the business until, approaching his 40th birthday, he finally returned to Hokkaido. On this trip, accompanied by his wife, Yoko, he took a family portrait, beginning a new tradition.

The book opens with a shot of the family’s studio. His father is posing in front of his business, car parked alongside, an indication of a booming business; children’s bicycles hint at a growing family. The only clue that something unusual is going on is the horse whose reins his father is holding.

MASAHISA FUKASE
MASAHISA FUKASE

Flip the page. Here is the Fukase clan. Ten people in all, three generations from toddlers up to grandparents, grouped closely together. It’s a pretty standard portrait — men standing at the back, women seated in front, kids either sitting on laps or straying to the edges, looking in the wrong direction. Masahisa himself isn’t in shot, but Yoko is, naked from the waist up, her hair half hiding her breasts. Her lower half is wrapped in a koshimaki — a thin white skirt worn as underwear beneath kimono. No one in the family seems to care, or even to have noticed, that she’s seminaked.

In the next picture she’s still seminaked, this time with her back to the camera. In plate No. 3, she’s facing the camera and everyone else has turned away. In the next few plates Yoko is replaced by different women. Soon the koshimaki is discarded, replaced by carefully placed hands.

Kosuga quotes Fukase, explaining that “these photographs were a ‘parody,’ taken by ‘myself, the third-generation son, the loser.’ It would seem that the purpose … was to poke fun at the traditional idea of the family photograph from the perspective of someone who felt himself a family failure.”

Joke it may have started, but there is something arresting about these images. The presence of naked women — in some cases hired models, complete strangers to the family — makes you look at the family more closely. What are they thinking? You stare at each face wondering what’s going on in their heads, what’s happening before and after the shot is taken.

Portrait within the portrait: As Masahisa Fukase's photobook progresses, the images become tinged with sadness, as family members age, die and are replaced by portrait versions of themselves. | MASAHISA FUKASE
Portrait within the portrait: As Masahisa Fukase’s photobook progresses, the images become tinged with sadness, as family members age, die and are replaced by portrait versions of themselves. | MASAHISA FUKASE

As the collection progresses, individual shots of his parents feature, as well as various family pairings — clothed and unclothed. Masahisa eventually creeps into shot, still holding the camera trigger, the cable trailing out. There’s one of him and Yoko, both in their underwear, leaping with joy.

But as the years pass, the fun fades. One of the young girls is replaced by a framed portrait; she has died. His father visibly ages, eventually so emaciated and weak he seems almost unable to hold himself upright on the chair. Soon he too is a framed portrait. The empty space where they should be aches with loss. The final plate echoes the first, only this time the studio is shuttered, the signs removed, no car, no bikes, the horse — like most of the family by now — long gone.

It’s a poignant and endlessly fascinating collection, more of a narrative, almost novelistic in the journey it takes you on through the decline of the Fukase family. It’s a reminder too, under the shadow of Instagram, that whatever spin or filters you use, the camera never lies.