For Masahisa Fukase, cats were much more than cute

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From Masahisa Fukase, “Sasuke”, (Atelier EXB, 2021) © Archive Masahisa Fukase

“I am often asked why I photograph cats,” wrote the late Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase in 1978. “What an idiotic question! I’m a professional photographer – and I’m crazy about cats … it makes perfect sense. Nobody else comes close to my experience with cats; nobody understands their feelings better; and no one has spent hours playing around with them in a mountain hut. ”

In the summer of 1977, Fukase took on a small, furry subject. Sasuke, as the kitten was called, ran away shortly afterwards, but Fukase – desperately looking for his newfound, playful model – soon adopted another kitten, also called Sasuke, and later another nickname Momo. The cats became the protagonists of hundreds of Fukase’s 35-millimeter film snapshots and three of his books in the late 1970s. But Fukase’s high-contrast black and white photos of cats have nothing to do with the cute cat pictures we are used to today. Instead, the images are in Sasuke (Atelier EXB, 2021) – a new release of cat pictures from Fukase’s archives – form a complex, closely observed type of self-portrait.

From Masahisa Fukase, “Sasuke”, (Atelier EXB, 2021) © Archive Masahisa Fukase

Fukase’s photos capture cats in an experimental, unexpected way. In some, the photographer snaps the animal at arm’s length, holds it over a rice field in the country or in front of an elephant enclosure in the zoo. In others, the picture is framed just behind the cat’s ears as if we were the cat ourselves. These strange perspectives and curious compositions blur the lines between the “I who do the looking” and the “I who is looked”, as Fukase said in 1991. Stiff whiskers, soft fur, sharp teeth and prickly tongues in full view have one intense tactile quality. “Photography for Fukase was also a way of caressing them, ”says Tomo Kosuga, director of the Masahisa Fukase Archives, in a recent interview with the book’s editor.

Fukase was born into a family of photographers in Bifuka, Hokkaido, in 1934 and immersed himself in the medium at an early age. He moved to Tokyo to study, settled there and adopted a cat to scare off the rats that haunted his first home. Despite his success in publishing his work in magazines and exhibitions – including a milestone exhibition of Japanese photography at MoMA in New York – Fukase’s obsession with photographing people he was close to overwhelmed his subjects and eventually sold them.

From Masahisa Fukase, “Sasuke”, (Atelier EXB, 2021) © Archive Masahisa Fukase

“One of the reasons the animals attracted him is because they don’t speak,” Kosuga recently wrote in an email to Hyperallergic, noting that Fukase once said, “I don’t trust people, but I trust cats. ” His cat series came about after the artist’s second divorce when he was struggling with a number of personal problems. “The only presence that did not leave him and stayed with him through thick and thin and looked at him undeterred was his cats,” writes Kosuga in the book. A fall in 1992 left Fukase in a coma until his death in 2012.

For Fukase, whose camera was the link between him and the most important things in his world, cats were much more than cute. Photographing her was a way to embody the love he felt so deeply that it changed the way he felt about himself. “I spent so much time lying on my stomach to get on par with a cat,” wrote Fukase in 1978, “that I became a cat … I saw myself reflected in the cats’ eyes. I wanted to photograph the love I saw there. You could say it’s more a collection of self-portraits than photos of Sasuke and Momo. “

From Masahisa Fukase, “Sasuke”, (Atelier EXB, 2021) © Archive Masahisa Fukase

Sasuke by Masahisa Fukase is published by Atelier EXB and is available online.

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