With iconoclasts such as Daidō Moriyama at its helm, Provoke was the underground photography mag that gave Japan an anti-authoritarian alternative in its post-war years
In 1968, a young group of radical Japanese photographers and writers joined forces to create Provoke, an anti-establishment magazine that would come to define an entire era of Japanese post-war avant-garde photography. Lasting just three issues, its gritty pages opened onto an urban darkroom of youthful rebellion where brazen snapshots of Tokyo met with bold texts on the subversive power of the photographic medium. Its makers – poet Takahiko Okada, theorist-photographers Kōji Taki and Takuma Nakahira, and photographers Yutaka Takanashi and Daidō Moriyama (who joined in issue two) – championed an iconoclastic photographic style called are-bure-boke. This ‘rough, blurry and out of focus’ approach galvanised the riotous, countercultural spirit of 60s Japan when the country was a hotbed of public protests.
As it emerged in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, public outcries continually deplored Japan’s alliance with the U.S., the Vietnam War, the westernisation of Japanese culture and the ruthless speed of industrialisation, propelled by the neoliberal government. In response to these frantic, urgent times, Provoke’s visual language embraced movement and disorientation, rejecting prevailing modes of image-making in a society increasingly dominated by media artifice. Advocating independent thinking, the magazine’s subtitle underlined that it was ultimately committed to ‘Provocative documents for the sake of thought’ – and it achieved that, in just three issues.
In the east Asian art world, Provoke is virtually schoolboy knowledge. Until recently, however, the rest of the world had been slow to recognise its significance. Recently spotlit in a book published by Steidl, as the touring exhibition Provoke: Between Protest and Performance opens at Switzerland’s Fotomuseum Winterthur, here’s a breakdown of everything you need to know about the trailblazing magazine.
IT CHANGED POST-WAR JAPANESE PHOTOGRAPHY
A founding member of Provoke, Nakihira hated the fact that the magazine’s defining feat was often reduced to its photographic style. But the magazine’s visceral aesthetic played a massive role in changing the face of post-war Japanese photography. Almost saturated to the point of looking wet, Provoke’s grainy, black and white images trashed the glossy appeal of commercial photography and “objective” precision of European-style photojournalism. Offering brash views, abrupt framing and angled perspectives, its photographs were often taken without even looking through the viewfinder.
As co-curator of the current Provoke exhibition, Matthew Witkovsky, explains, “there was a sense of ‘you’ve got to give up some control if you’re going to feel the heat of the moment.’” From Nakahira’s tilting snapshots of twilight Tokyo streets to Moriyama’s shadowy series of a woman’s arse cheeks, it’s no wonder Provoke’s are-bure-boke style was criticised at the time for being “dirty”. But the magazine revelled in the murky, inky materiality of the darkroom process, printing images across full-bleed spreads, interspersed with terse text and dynamic typography. If its pages weren’t filled with pictures of protests, it still captured the intoxicating feeling of revolution.
IT PROVED AN ALTERNATIVE FORM OF PROTEST
In 1968, the year Provoke was established, a wave of public protests hit Tokyo, following nearly a decade of civil tumult. Huge campus rebellions calling for student rights came hand in hand with nationwide anger at America’s military presence in Japan and the despotism of the neoliberal Japanese state. This context provided a breeding ground for the production of anti-establishment protest books –publications aimed at spreading protest information and rousing further mobilisation – from which Provoke took direct visual cues.
But when it came to challenging the status quo politically, Provoke took a radically different approach. As Witkovsky points out, “Provoke gave room for doubt – doubt about those in authority who were trying to reorient Japan, often at the expense of ordinary citizens, and doubt about protesting as a way to register dissatisfaction with leadership.” In other words, Provoke encouraged its readers to think independently before following the crowd. No doubt, a sense of disillusionment with the effectiveness of all the cries and commotion pervaded the Provoke group, as Moriyama recently quipped in an interview, “I wasn’t interested in the discussion at all, so I would be in the darkroom or in a bar in (the Tokyo district) Shinjuku, drinking.”
IT HAD NO SENSE OF CONTROL
The rapid urbanisation of Japan in the 60s and the intense atmosphere that this fostered, offered raw material for the Provoke photographers and writers. As Moriyama has stated, “Japan was moving fast and we wanted to reflect that in our work.” Takanishi’s and Nakahira’s blurry photographs of urban streets, notably, foregrounded a sense of speed and disorientation as if they’d been taken from a driving car. Similarly, you’d be forgiven for thinking Moriyama’s crooked photographs of endless rows of consumer products were snapped by someone running drunk down a supermarket aisle. Maybe they were, but the sense of lost control in these images was well intended.
Under the neoliberal Japanese government, an urbanisation process that took a century in America was compressed into just 25 years in Japan, and a generation of urban youth were left with a pervasive feeling of uprooting. Provoke harnessed the subjective experience of urban space in perpetual flux, taking inspiration from William Klein’s photographs of Tokyo. As Nakahira would later write in admiration of Klein’s images, “the world (for Klein) is not a static, completed universe but rather something which flows and changes its appearance like a nebula with a movement in viewpoint”.
“Provoke gave room for doubt – doubt about those in authority who were trying to reorient Japan, often at the expense of ordinary citizens, and doubt about protesting as a way to register dissatisfaction with leadership” – Matthew Witkovsky (curator of Provoke's current exhibition)
IT RALLIED AGAINST FIXED MEANINGS
Sticking to the ethos that more or less nothing was certain, Provoke was on a mission to galvanise not only the sense of a perpetually moving city but also the unfixed nature of language and photography. The manifesto published in the first issue made this clear: “A photographer’s eye can capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is”. Resisting images that attempted to explain reality, Provoke’s members refuted traditional documentary modes and stereotypical narrative – both of which implied photography’s subservience to words – and, instead, sought to forge a new visual language that would break free from fixed meanings.
As Nakihira wrote, “Provoke has reversed the image as the self-evident and pointless proof that a tree is a tree, and, on the contrary, has presented images that raise uncertainty about the fixed meanings of verisimilitude”. Such images foregrounded atmosphere and subjective viewpoints, rather than well-defined things that merely made images indexical. As Takanashi implied, “I used to be a photographer who interprets things via language. And then Provoke changed me”. Provoke’s approach was thus conceptual rather than representational; it unsettled the very meaning of photography, questioning how we view the world, and what it even means to see.
ITS LEGACY IS AS STOIC FOUR DECADES LATER
Today, a generation of Japanese photographers who grew up in the vestige of the Provoke era almost can’t click the shutter without acknowledging the revolutionary approach of its key players. Trailblazing contemporary photographer Daisuke Yokota phrased this perfectly when he said that Moriyama effectively taught his generation “optical experiences, which I would say is something more than just an ‘influence’.” It’s true that few short-lived magazines have had the type and enormity of impact that Provoke did. “Since 1969 or 1970 it’s hard to find a Japanese photographer who didn't go through that work, and look like that work”, says Witovsky, “all the way I would say until the early to mid-90s.”
The fact that the magazine’s name is used to describe an entire movement and era of postwar Japanese photography (“the Provoke era”) speaks for itself. That era included other notorious photographers like Nobuyoshi Araki and Shōmei Tōmatsu, who was initially regarded as a mentor to the Provoke group. But rather than imitate the style of these photographic legends, contemporary Japanese photographers like Yokota and Go Itame take cues from their radical attitude towards the medium, incorporating performance and installation-based practices into their work to push the boundaries – as Provoke did –of the possibilities of photography.
Provoke: Between Protest and Performance runs until 28 August at the Fotomuseum, Winterthur