The Japanese photo magazine ‘Provoke’ only published three issues in 1968 and 1969. It was a rejection of many of the then-prevailing photographic norms. And it uniquely caught the 1960’s era of protest against American military bases on Japanese soil, Tokyo’s Narita airport extension and more. It also reflected growing Japanese confidence and self-identification after WWII.
Provoke was a photographic movement seeing photography as an action rather than a reflection, a subjective experience rather than an objective documenting of scenes. It also incorporated the power of performance – for anyone that knows Japan, performance is a central aesthetic, witness the tea ceremony.
Kamaitachi #31, Hoseoe Eikö, 1969
This book, ‘PROVOKE: Between PROTEST and PERFORMANCE‘, is the catalogue from a recent travelling exhibition – and features all three copies of the Provoke magazine. It is a compelling work, almost 700 pages long.
Provoke imagery was motion, instant, urban and diaristic – placing the photographer ‘in’ the action. Are, Bure, Boke, meaning rough, blurred, out of focus was the prevailing style.
Many of Japan’s most influential photographers – including Daidō Moriyama, Yutaka Takanashi, Shōmei Tōmatsu, and Nobuyoshi Araki – are from this era. And Nakahira Takuma (1938-2015), to who the book is dedicated, was both a talented photographer and an acutely influential photography critic.
Accident Series, 1969, Daido Moriyama
In reading the book, it is clear to me that one needs to study, ponder and go back. But here are a few quotes that stick in my mind so far:
“… photographs deviate from actual objects. Taking advantage of this deviation, we are able to illuminate the hidden meanings of objects.
In other words we can strip away the veneer from objects and people. This paring down does not occur from mere gazing.
It is made possible because photography operates as a mixture of human and machine, and consequently transcends human perception to reach level of consciousness.”
From ‘First, abandon the world of Pseudo-Certainty: Thoughts on photography and language’, edited by Taki Köji and Nakahira Takuma, p 211. Tokyo: Tabata Shoten, 1970
Symptom/Lump of Lead into Space, 1972, Enokura Köji
“The [Provoke] group’s founder members (like the protesters) showed dissatisfaction with consumer capitalism, a society saturated with mass median and the uncontrolled transformation of urban space’.
‘Members of the group acted to take apart subjectivity and to keep photography, and language, in a state of flux: words and images perpetually in formation – as a means to ‘provoke’ a world dominated by information’.
Essay in the book: Provoke: Photography up for discussion, Matthew S. Witkoswky
Narita, 1968, Kitai Kazuo
“William Klein’s work [in New York, 1955] differs from that of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank in one key respect: Klein thinks of photography as a method of searching and recognising, as a plan for adventure in an endless world.
Cartier-Bresson and Frank think of it as a means of direct expression of a specific view on thc world or on life, such as the viewpoint that people are lonely and miserable”.
From FOTO CRITICA 1 (1967), p36, Nakahira Takuma
Last Train series, 1968, Nakahira Takuma
‘Today, when words have lost their material base—in other words, their reality – and seem suspended in mid-air – a photographer’s eye can capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is.
He can submit those images as a document to be considered alongside language and ideology. This is why, brash as it may seem, Provoke has the subtitle, ‘provocative documents for thought.’
Manifesto of the Provoke Group by Kohi Taki, Nakahira Takuma, Takahiko Okada, Yutaka Takanashi, and Daido Moriyama.
Moryiama joined Provoke for the second edition.
Takanashi Yukata, 1969, Hijikata Tassumi
From the publisher’s website:
‘The short-lived Japanese magazine Provoke is recognized as a major achievement in world photography of the postwar era, uniting the country’s most contentious examples of protest photography, vanguard fine art, and critical theory of the late 1960s and early 70s in only three issues overall.
The writing and images by Provoke’s members – critic Koji Taki, poet Takahiko Okada, photographers Takuma Nakahira, Yutaka Takanashi, Daido Moriyama – were suffused with the tactics developed in some Japanese protest books which made use of innovative graphic design and provocatively “poor” materials.
Recording live actions, photography in these years was also an expressive form suited to emphasize and critique the mythologies of modern life with a wide spectrum of performing artists such as Nobuyoshi Araki, Koji Enokura and Jiro Takamatsu.
This catalogue accompanies the first exhibition ever to be held about the magazine and its creators and focuses on its historical context’.
Albertina, Vienna, 29 January to 18 May 2016
Fotomuseum Winterthur, 28 May to 28 August 2016
Le Bal, Paris, 14 September to 11 December 2016
The Art Institute of Chicago, 28 January to 7 May 2017
Totally recommended for anyone interesting in photography, its history, practice and theory
Also recommended – a review of Nakahira Takuma’s ‘Circulation: Date, Place, Events’ for the Seventh Paris Biennale, 1971