Face to Face, the latest book by Japanese photographer Seiichi Furuya, uses portraiture to explore states of love, loss, mental illness and memory. Furuya previously published five books over a span of two decades in the series Mémoires, all containing photographs made during his relationship with Christine Gössler. Furuya and Gössler met in Austria in 1978, and she would become the primary subject for his work as well as his wife and the mother of their son. Christine, an aspiring actress, took her own life in East Berlin in 1985. She had been suffering from symptoms of schizophrenia leading up to her death.
For Face to Face, Furuya revisited his archive and found images that Gössler made, portraits of him taken at or around the same moments that he was photographing her. He paired her images with his own, presenting a reciprocal visual narrative in the book, which would act as the concluding work in the Mémoires series.
The book is divided into chapters, each representing one year during their relationship, and each pair of photos is marked by the locations where they were taken, as the couple lived and traveled around Europe and Japan. The concise and chronological sequencing gradually reveals the progression of their relationship and life together as well as the slow and underlying encroachment of Christine’s illness. As a viewer, experiencing the book in this way feels like traveling through a tunnel of memory in the photographer’s mind. With each spread pairing two viewpoints of the same shared visual space, the reader is let into the intimacy of these memories and moments, placed directly into the center of the narrative.
The portraits are magnetic and penetrating, often showing an unbroken gaze from either subject, as if they are not looking into the camera but straight through it, into the eyes of the person behind the lens. These images feel authentic and of the moment, not voyeuristic or candid but intimate and natural, the kind of pictures one could only make of a lover or close friend. While some are more styled and posed, most are relaxed and spontaneous, especially those around the beginning of the relationship. As with many romantic encounters, these initial photographs outline a time of shared joy and moments of sincere connection.
The portraits are magnetic and penetrating, often showing an unbroken gaze from either subject, as if they are not looking into the camera but straight through it, into the eyes of the person behind the lens.
There are several significant tonal shifts throughout the book. The first chapter contains mostly color photographs, the two usually smiling and seemingly carefree in each other’s company. The second chapter is a sequence of mostly black and white images that begin to show either person in more contemplative or distant states.
In 1981, the couple’s son was born. Now parents, Furuya and Gössler are shown in nearly every photograph onward with their son in the frame. The pictures begin to feel more like a family album with a simple snapshot aesthetic, less thought out and more concerned with just capturing moments of the three of them together.
Remarkably, up until the year of her death, in the photographs we are presented with, Christine exhibits a seemingly content visage and motherly presence that do not outwardly reveal signs of an underlying mental illness. In the final chapter from 1985 however, she looks older, thinner and less physically vibrant, a stark contrast to the woman we see in the beginning of the book.
One of the final photographs, an intense close-up portrait of Christine in East Berlin, is perhaps the most striking and memorable image in the book. We do not know how long before her death it was taken, months or weeks, maybe days. But what is captured in that single portrait tells the story of a lifetime and a deep struggle. The emergence of a tear in one eye, half hidden in shadow, the other eye glinting in golden sunlight with a soft radiance. In her eyes are sickness and suffering converging with a wavering resilience, revealing a person shaken by a disease of the mind. We can still see a determination to live and to continue being a mother and a wife hidden somewhere underneath the internal pain that has made its way to the surface.
Mental illness is both a shadow and a ghost.
This is ultimately the nature of mental illness. While often pigeonholed into a stereotyped image of a lethargic and lifeless depressed person, it is in fact a vast spectrum of conditions that affect each individual in a singular and unique way. The crucial and often overlooked difference between mental and physical illness is that a physically sick person usually retains their will to live, while a mentally ill person often loses this same fundamental human instinct, making it all the more menacing. Mental illness is both a shadow and a ghost. It is a constant, looming threat of darkness to those suffering from it. At the same time, it is something that cannot be seen or felt by those who do not bear its weight.
Context plays an important role in Face to Face, given the subliminal nature of mental illnesses. The pictures themselves are generally and externally innocuous. However, the work becomes more revealing and evocative when the reader knows the subtext of Christine’s battle with her own mind and ultimately, her tragic death. It is only by knowing what will come, and how things will end, that the reader is able to absorb the images with a more enlightened perspective in their lived present.
As a whole, Face to Face serves as a subtle outline of Christine’s illness and death, while keeping the depth of grief and loss mostly under its sleeve. More importantly, it is a monument to love, family and moments of contentment, however fleeting they might be. Furuya effectively creates a memorial to lived experiences, some remembered and many likely forgotten until discovered in his archive and retrieved from the void of time. These images, gathered from the dust of the past, powerfully depict the dualities of love and loss, presence and absence, of what is missing and what remains.