by Courtney R. Thompson
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 documents to be considered alongside language and ideology. This is why, brash as it may seem, Provoke has the subtitle ‘provocative documents of thought.’
-The Provoke Manifesto (1968), Koji Taki & Takuma Nakahira
With grainy, fragmented images of cities and their inhabitants, the sizable collection of photo books in eight vitrines situated inside the entrance of the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries in the Art Institute of Chicago provides a solid context to a particular moment in postwar Japanese photography that records the immediacy of deliberate self-expression—an aggressive counter to photojournalism. Here image is complicated by techniques born out of a desire to be are (rough), bure (blurred), and boke (out of focus).
Provoke magazine existed in three issues from 1968-1969 and a photo book in 1970 entitled Mazu tashikarashisa no sekai o sutero (First Discard the World of Pseudo-Certainty). The first issue appeared within weeks of the “International Anti-War Day” and the riots occurring on October 21, 1969, when more than 700 students and activists were arrested. However, as the collection of photo books on display show, the creative climate leading up to its publication was already charged with anxiety and rebellion. A moment born out of economic prosperity in Japan that followed lingering military occupations and cultural capital imported from the United States, the photography featured in Provoke revealed a commitment to a new language through image. There was a conscious move to antagonize the cultural origins of prewar artistic production. This movement was not unique to photography and was also reflected in the films of Nagisa Oshima, and Tatsumi Hijikata’s butoh choreography at this time.
By the second issue, Provoke counted Koji Taki, Takuma Nakahira, Yutada Takanashi, Takahiko Okada, and Daido Moriyama in its collective. Each member had a distinctive point of view, yet as the photo books on display attest, their ability to collectively produce a publication out of a desire for a contemporary visual language remained. Each went on to establish their own successful careers, producing individual photo books including; Nakahira’s Kitanubeki Kotoba no Tameni (For a Language to Come), 1970, Moriyama’s Shashin yo Sayonara (Bye Bye Photography), 1972, and Takanashi’s Toshi-e (Towards the City), 1974. The latter was designed by Kohei Sugiura; an integral figure responsible for some of the most innovative photo book designs in Japan from the 1960s to 1980s.
The display of the photo publications provides a dynamic range of the photographic climate around these photographers, clearly focusing on the artists operating at this specific time rather than an expansive up-to-date history of Japanese photography. However, this left me wanting more information about the wider ties to Japanese photography in the decades following the brief but influential run of the magazine. This might be a thoughtful choice; encouraging the viewer to seek out the books outside of the vitrines, an obvious connection with the resources available in the exhibition’s setting in an art library. The discussion of available photographic equipment is absent in the show, so one is also left wondering what the impact of new technologies meant to this group of photographers at a time when Japan dominated the market. Nonetheless, the exhibition successfully indicates the importance of Provoke’s manifesto and the dissemination and exposure of their ideas through magazines and photo books.
-Courtney R. Thompson, Contributing ArtSlant Writer
(Top image: Detail from image 4 in Volume 1, Provoke, 1968. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.)