PRINT February 2017


“Provoke: Photography in Japan 1960–1975”

Daidō Moriyama, Midnight Accident, Tokyo, 1969, gelatin silver print, 13 × 18 5/8". From the series “Accident,” 1969.

THE JAGGED, high-contrast, and blurry imagery often associated with postwar Japanese photography can be traced to the legendary photo magazine that is the subject of the compact and exhilarating exhibition “Provoke: Between Protest and Performance—Photography in Japan 1960–1975,” which I saw at the Paris alternative space Le Bal. Created by a small group of brilliant photographers and intellectuals—critic-photographers Takuma Nakahira and Kōji Taki, poet Takahiko Okada, and photographers Yutaka Takanashi and Daidō Moriyama—Provoke comprised only three issues, published between November 1968 and August 1969. But it has had a profound influence—not only for the distinctive photographic style it embraced but also because of the way it captured the flayed emotions of its historical moment, a time of countercultural alienation and insurrection. As photographer Nobuyoshi Araki has said, “Provoke . . . was like a giant bomb, made underground and thrown by the radicals.”

Araki’s metaphor was not accidental. Provoke appeared in Japan during a decade of extraordinarily ferocious, unrelenting protest against the postwar government and its capitulations to American domination. The 1960 signing of the revised Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan, which favored the Westernization of Japan and forcefully mandated Japan’s reconstruction as a democratic government and surging neoliberal economy, as well as the country’s total demilitarization in the wake of its wartime aggression, unleashed an unprecedented wave of often violent protests. Millions of students and workers took to the streets. In 1966, the government announced a plan to build the vast Narita International Airport on expropriated farmlands around Sanrizuka, near Tokyo, sparking a protracted uprising by peasant farmers. Their resistance dominated Le Bal’s cramped quarters, with a running wall-size projection of Shinsuke Ogawa’s brilliant vérité documentary Sanrizuka: The Peasants of the Second Fortress (1971), in which Ogawa’s partisan point of view places him squarely among the defiant protesters facing off against shield-bearing government police.

Elsewhere in postwar Japan, committed photojournalists also adopted novel subjective perspectives in covering riots and demonstrations. The urgent photobooks they published—such as Hiroshi Hamaya’s Record of Anger and Sadness (1960), Kazuo Kitai’s Resistance (1965), and Shōmei Tōmatsu’s Okinawa, Okinawa, Okinawa (1969)—used unthinkably imperfect protest pictures, often taken at night and amid jostling crowds. But the raw energy of these dark, ragged, and sometimes barely focused photographs constituted a potent form of counter-photojournalism. Dozens of Japanese protest books were shown at Le Bal, many published inexpensively and anonymously by labor unions and student groups, using surreptitious pictures and innovative layouts to document the resistance and to provide instructions for protest tactics.

Though overtly apolitical, the Provoke photographers shared the antiauthoritarian views of the activists and adopted the rough stylistic approach of the protest books. They wanted to overturn the presumed objectivity and clarity then considered essential to humanistic documentary photography. But their larger goal was to establish a new visual language, one without reference to words or the specific details of reality. The Provoke group aimed to destabilize the certainty photography seemed to promise, and to reveal a world indescribable by conventional language. Their manifesto boldly stated, “We as photographers must capture with our own eyes fragments of reality that can no longer be grasped through existing language, and must actively put forth materials that address language and ideas.” The most provocative feature of this exhibition was to connect this rather abstract intellectual mission to the urgent political crisis that surrounded the magazine’s photographers.

Brian Wallis talks about Provoke.

Echoing the captionless layout of the original Provoke issues, the cacophonous installation at Le Bal favored books and films, performance scripts and documentation, and enlarged photographic reproductions arrayed like wallpaper across the interior. Each issue of Provoke was displayed as a large grid of sequential pages, clearly showing the characteristic layout of inky, expressionistic images, one after another, mostly full page, with almost no text. Viewing the magazines this way was very different from leafing through the modest paperback volumes, but the presentation allowed visitors to see every picture and to experience Provoke’s dynamic energy. The full-bleed, high-contrast photographs, shot casually or even randomly, with little regard for lighting or framing, appear on the pages as indecipherable daubs of light and dark. In Japanese, this splotchy, nearly abstract style even has a name: are-bure-boke, meaning “grainy, blurry, and out of focus.” The show makes a strong case that Provoke photographs were influenced by the casual improvisations of the protest books. And, in the indispensable catalogue, the photographers themselves acknowledge their debt to the contingencies of William Klein’s 1956 book Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels.

But Provoke had no real precedents. Its photographers, and the followers they spawned, translated the fleeting rage of political opposition into a rarefied language of representation, one less bound to the precise depiction of events than to the mood of vivid experience—as a protest, and out of historical necessity.

“Provoke,” curated by Diane Dufour at Le Bal, was previously mounted at the Albertina, Vienna, and the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, and is on view through Apr. 30 at the Art Institute of Chicago (organized by Walter Moser, Duncan Forbes, and Matthew Witkovsky, respectively).

Brian Wallis is a photo historian and curator based in New York.

Watch a video interview with Brian Wallis about this show and read Franz Prichard’s December 2015 Passages essay on Takuma Nakahira.