In this series, Fukase photographed different places by turning the camera on himself, in a manner similar to what are now called selfies. The first exhibition of these images, which were shot during a trip in 1989 that took him to Paris, London, Brussels, Antwerp, Pompeii, and the Taj Mahal in India, was held at the Ginza Nikon Salon in November 1990; it was called Private Scenes. Fukase published a number of the images in the December 1990 issue of Nippon Camera under the title "Private Scenes Letters from Journeys."
"Last spring, on a whim, I began taking photos that included parts of my body within the frame, and I've spent all my time on this since then. It might be my hands, my feet, my face-snapshots of the city refashioned in my own way. I gave the series this name because everybody and everything I photograph is a projection of myself."
As suggested by the story's subtitle "Letters from Journeys," the photographs were taken during his journey abroad. Rather surprisingly, Fukase equipped his Nikon F3 with a 35mm lens. This no doubt partially explains why these self-portraits are taken at such close range that at times only his eye is visible, and why his face is blurred. Be that as it may, these images show an aging man on his own; they are not really what one calls souvenir photos. Indeed, they are rather mournful. Fukase, however, seemed particularly fond of this method of taking images.
He then changed settings and continued the series in Tokyo. The backdrops to the images were now more familiar. He also changed his Nikon F3 for a compact camera, a Konica Big Mini, and used the automatic date-stamp function. He spent a whole year photographing himself, from December 1990 to December 1991, and displayed the results in a second, bigger exhibition entitled Private Scenes '92. Visitors were met by the unsettling sight of over 450 overlapping prints arranged on the gallery's four black walls. None were framed, but rather hastily stuck up with drawing pins. The exhibition was divided into four parts: "Private Scenes," "Hibi" (Cracks), "Berobero" (Tongues), and "Bukubuku" (Bubbles). In the last three, which are presented in the following chapters, Fukase himself was once again the subject and a lengthy text, written like a diary, was inserted between the photographs in all four parts of the exhibition.
An extract: "November 29: I've now been using the Konica Big Mini for a year. My photographs have changed a lot. In order to include myself in these photos, I've been working without a viewfinder, as it was physically impossible to look into a viewfinder if I wanted to include my face, by extending my hand or holding the camera beside or in front of me. The viewfinder is a useless component for me. I've had an intuitive understanding of the field of vision for many years; my eyes have become a 35mm lens."
Put another way, he repeated the experience of Walking Eyes, except that now he was no longer looking through the viewfinder. He didn't need to, because his work had developed so that he was now part of the subject he was photographing. At the time of Walking Eyes, he noted: "I instantaneously pressed the shutter release whenever the tentacles of my gaze accidentally grasped hold of some thing." A metaphor like that already infers the presence of a "relationship of viewer and viewed." In an interview with the photographer Ishiuchi Miyako in 1991, Fukase referred back to this relationship that was central to Private Scenes. "There is no difference between the me who does the looking and the person who is being looked at. When I'm behind the viewfinder, I'm also always being looked at. This is the theme I'm working on at the moment [...] About the fact that the subject who looks is also the object looked at. I started to ask myself what I would look like if the looked-at me also became part of the photograph. At present, I'm interested in studying this not by taking the photograph from afar with a delayed shutter release, but close up."
Fukase realized that photographs of his surroundings also spoke of him, as the object looked at by the subject of his photograph. His reason for throwing himself into this series was to express this "relationship of viewer and viewed" in a concrete, direct fashion. And he found it surprisingly fascinating. "For the past four years, I have included myself in all my photographs, in an almost pathological manner, to the point of feeling as if I have eyes in the back of my head. I am obviously the subject, but the way in which I distance myself from the background is also interesting, so much so that I sometimes feel that the photos would be better without my face in them. It's true, I know, but I am unable to stop myself putting me in the photograph."
The person who, at the time of "Walking Eyes" wrote, "Recently, when taking photos [...] I don't feel particularly excited," was now referring to his "almost pathological" approach. If the thoughts and intentions Fukase expressed now make us shudder, it is because Private Scenes '92 would be his last exhibition. A terrible accident was about to bring his artistic activity to an abrupt end.
On June 20, 1992, three months after the end of the exhibition, Fukase fell down the stairs of a bar that he regularly frequented, blind drunk. His head hit the ground violently, causing brain damage. The contusions on his brain left him handicapped for life, unable to communicate with others in any way or do anything for himself. He spent the following 20 years bedridden, until in 2012, at the age of 78, he finally closed his eyes forever.
While we cannot know the exact truth about this accident, we do have a number of warning signs concerning his behaviour at that time. Firstly, he united four distinct series, which would become his last works, into that single exhibition, Private Scenes '92, composed entirely of self-portraits.
Furthermore, having rarely spoken in public until then, after 1990, his attitude changed completely, and he frequently talked about himself. He also began behaving eccentrically, for example, distributing his own death announcement to those close to him. The following sentences, taken from the text stuck on the walls of this final exhibition, reinforce the impression of imminent danger: "Ken Domōn once said that taking photos was his reason for existing, or rather proof of his existence. I would be embarrassed to say the same about my 'Private Scenes, 'Berobero' and 'Bukubuku, and it would be an exaggeration. In my case, it would suffice to exchange 'Private Scenes' for 'Death Sentence. I chose the title Shikei ["private scenes" in Japanese] for this series because it was the homonym of another shikei meaning 'death sentence? Where am I, who am I? These kinds of questions can be associated with the onset of senility; one might think that wanting to make people ill at ease by exhibiting my face with unpleasant expressions derives from a form of sadism, [...] but let us not forget that originally, sadism and masochism were two sides of the same coin, as were genius and madness. Madness also gives pleasure."
Having fired at those close to him in the name of photography, Fukase ended up turning the barrel of the gun on himself. Private Scenes '92 is the result: numerous self-portraits, or to put it another way, the "piles of tombstones that are my images" exhibited there right in front of our eyes. They represent, in their own way, the extravagant photographic funeral that Fukase organized for himself.
Text by Tomo Kosuga from the book MASAHISA FUKASE, 2018