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AliveReview - Alive
Photographs 1978-2003
by Seiichi Furuya
Scalo, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Nov 27th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 47)

It seems presumptuous to assume that the life's work of Seiichi Furuya is largely defined by his relationship with his wife Christine.  Indeed, he started as a photographer in 1970 and only met her in 1978.  She suffered from severe depression and she killed herself in 1985.  Yet the cover picture on this retrospective of his work, "Graz, 1997," is an image of many photographs hanging to dry in a dark room.  The photographs show Christine's head close up, her eyes dark, and her face grim.  The room is bathed in red light.  It is an odd and striking image, showing Furuya's preoccupation with his dead wife twelve years after her suicide.  On the other hand, the book is titled Alive, making the obvious point that he and their son Komyo are alive, and she is not.  So it is natural to assume that Furuya is inviting his audience to inspect all his pictures with Christine in mind. 

The other biographical fact about Furaya that needs mentioning as an obvious theme in his work is that he is a Japanese man who moved to Eastern Europe when he was about 23, in 1973.  He is working with at least two cultural traditions and he has spent most of his adult life as a foreigner.  It is much harder to see how this factors into Furaya's work, but it is striking how many of his early works are in monochrome, full of tension and unhappiness, but in 1987 many of his color pictures start to feature bright reds, and as the years go on the feelings become warmer, with many images from 1997 and after being downright vibrant. 

It is almost impossible to separate one's reaction to Furaya's pictures of Christine and Komyo from one's knowledge of her history of depression and her jumping to her death from a building in Berlin.  The first image of her, in color, from 1978, the year they met and married, standing in front of a calm body of water, wearing a skirt, a camera hanging around her neck from a strap, smiling youthfully at the photographer, is entrancing.  The one on the next page shows her in black and white, from the same year, wearing dungarees, looking down, preoccupied, with dark circles under her eyes.  The tragedy and prospect of her early self-inflicted death pervades every thought of her, and the pictures of her are filled with sadness.  One reads her hopelessness into her eyes, knowing almost nothing else about what she was thinking or experiencing at the time. 

The pictures subsequent to Christine's suicide are more difficult to read, more inscrutable even. They take up most of the book.  Some seem to provide social commentary on East Berlin in the late 1980s, showing a drab and cheerless city, so it is not surprising that Furaya and his son returned to Graz in Austria.  The pictures become more personal again, showing a room in their residence, a washing line in a garden with a polka dot table cloth hanging, and tables and chairs in a garden.  These pictures are clearly taken with a good camera that provides more detail than one would get with a normal 35mm film, but apart from that, they are remarkably unremarkable.  They show no people, and their emotional tone is rather neutral.  Only the presence of red objects in some pictures suggests the thought of Christine, especially considering her association with red in the cover photograph.  One wonders what one is meant to be looking for, and why some of these pictures are thought worthy of publication.   We see a young man, presumably his son Komyo, in "Graz," 2001, now aged 20, dressed in a suit and tie in the garden, in front of a green bush, with frost still on the ground.  Komyo folds his hand in front of him, and poses stiffly, looking a little uncomfortable, as most young men would probably be in such a situation.  One gets the feeling we are looking through the Furaya family photo album.  Similarly, in "Graz, 1997," an orange and white fat cat sprawls on its back with its legs splayed, with a piece of a plant draped over its front, and light dappling the grass.  Most cat owners have such pictures, and it is hard to see much distinctive about this image -- possibly there's an intimation of death in the cat's supine figure and closed eyes, and there's a sense of restfulness in the domestic scene that contrasts with the earlier images of Christine.  Nevertheless, the main meaning of these images seems personal, and mostly closed to the viewer. 

There are numerous photographs from Furaya's travels to Tokyo, Aqaba, Arles and Mostar, some showing hotel rooms or taken from hotel rooms, some showing events on streets, and some showing scenes of nature.  Many are dramatic or well-constructed, with striking colors, but there's little thematic unity.  A few are obvious references to death and decay, but that's not a theme that dominates.  So one is left to conclude that what makes these pictures significant is not so much their formal qualities or even their particular content, but just the very personal idea for Furaya that he has survived and that life goes on.  The last few pictures of flowers are quite beautiful, and since the order of the images has clearly been given a great deal of thought, this suggests that he has come to some peace of mind and even a sense of joy.

As a collection of responses in the decades after a suicide, these images are striking and unusual.  It is hard to think of another photographer who has made such a document, although we need to be careful, because Furaya himself only gives us the pictures and uninformative titles, and the rest is our interpretation.  As self-revelation, this is far removed from the work of Nan Goldin, for example.  Nevertheless, Alive is intriguing and subtly moving. 

 

Links:

Review of Memoires 1995

Scalo Publishers

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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