Rough, Blurred, Out of Focus: A Closer Look at Provoke

BY Richard B. Woodward, January 3, 2017

As Japanese photography has found itself in favor with the art world again, prompted by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s traveling retrospectives for Daido Moriyama (1999) and Shomei Tomatsu (2004), it’s been increasingly evident that to better understand the post-World War II period, more needed to be learned about a short-lived 1960s avant-garde magazine – a publication often cited as a seismic event for generations of Japanese artists and one that few outside the country ever saw.

Provoke published only three issues between 1968 and 1969, but it was aptly named. Everything about its low-budget design and unpredictable contents served to outrage traditional photographers. The paper stock was rough and cheap, the tonalities of the black-and-white reproductions veering to extremes, either bleached out or blocked up. Subjects were equally haphazard and unprepossessing: dead-end alleyways and staircases to nowhere, barren landscapes, out-of-focus nudes, faces photographed in obliterating close-up, consumer items on supermarket shelves, a pay phone, a wrecked car. More often than not, flaring light in the images made it hard to tell exactly what might be happening.

Almost all were shot with handheld 35-mm cameras and canted in their framing, adding to a general sense of societal instability, randomness, mayhem, and boredom. If browsers at a newsstand in those years were likely to dismiss the magazine as anarchic, that was fine with the contributing artists. Provoke was a written and visual assault on the very idea that words and photographs could get along and nourish each other as they had in the past. Text was confined to the front and back of each issue but could be as allusive and incendiary as the photographs.

As Yutaka Takanashi wrote in a preface in the first issue: “We as photographers must capture with our own eyes fragments of reality that can no longer be grasped through existing language.”

The bravura exhibition and catalogue Provoke: Between Protest and Performance,
Photography in Japan 1960-75
is the first in-depth examination anywhere of the magazine’s history, impact, and aftershocks. This co-production among four curators and institutions – Diane Dufour (LE BAL, France), Matthew S. Witkovsky (Art Institute of Chicago), Duncan Forbes (Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland), and Walter Moser (Albertina, Austria) – both substantially advances the scholarship of Japanese post-war art and photography and dramatizes the stark alternative to the commonplace that the magazine represented.

Provoke was like a giant bomb, made underground and thrown by the radicals,” Nobuyoshi Araki once said. “During the era of Provoke, we were all high-spirited. Unlike today, we thought of the camera as a weapon.”

Araki’s Xerox Photography Albums (1970), street portraits and semi-nudes done on an office copier, is one of several bodies of work inspired by the disreputable Provoke aesthetic that can be found in the catalogue and the exhibition, which opens January 28 at the Art Institute of Chicago after a run in Paris on two floors of LE BAL. The curatorial scope presents the magazine as an active participant in movements extending beyond its pages (and brief lifetime.) These included ‘60s mass demonstrations and happenings, as well as other forms of performance in public spaces.

On the ground floor at LE BAL, where black walls added a subterranean air to the displays, a vitrine held seldom-seen photographic books and pamphlets by student organizations from the period that steadily documented the ongoing dissent. Screening in a partitioned area were films by Shinsuke Ogawa, whose collective documented anti-government actions, such as a violent 1971 battle against police by a group of peasants fighting to protect their land from seizure for the building of Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture.

The Provoke artists found role models in books, such as Hiroshi Hamaya’s Ikari to kanashimi no kiroku (Record of Anger and Sadness, 1960), his expressionist record of failed street protests against a U.S.-Japan security treaty; and Kikuji Kawada’s Chizu (The Map, 1965), a symbolic study of the lingering psychological effects of Hiroshima.

Chief among the guiding spirits was Tomatsu. He showed photographers that impolite
– or even incoherent – responses to one’s surroundings were acceptable, even rational. Passionate anger or rapture could take any form, in images that ignored the gray scale and were hard to read. Oh! Shinjuku (1969) portrayed Tokyo as a bewildering maze. His photos from the mid-‘60s forward noted his discomfort at the presence of U.S. sailors stationed in his home country. In 1968, he organized (with Takuma Nakahira and critic Kji Taki) the first exhibition on the history of Japanese photography in Tokyo titled 100 Years of Photography: A History of Japanese Photographic Expression. As editors of the magazine Gendai no me (The Contemporary Eye), he and Nakahira published photographers who later joined the Provoke group, notably Moriyama and Takanashi.

It is curious that the magazine appeared as Japan reached a new level of prosperity in its recovery from the devastation of WWII. By 1968, it had the second largest economy in the world and the smallest income disparity of any industrialized nation. (Class restructuring was due in no small part to the destruction of the old order by the U.S., which did not prevent its being the focus of resentment over its overbearing cultural and military presence. Opposition to the Vietnam War united protestors throughout the world.)

In the basement at LE BAL, where the black walls were replaced with beige, the complete spreads from all three issues of Provoke were reproduced on partitions.

If the upstairs connected the movement to the politics of the time, the downstairs emphasized its relationship to the emerging art of performance. Photographs of one happening, titled Sherut Puran (Shelter Plan, 1964), mocked the gravity of protest. Performed by the group Hi Red Center, allied with Fluxus, it called on people to turn up at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and be outfitted with suits to wear in a bogus nuclear shelter. Tailors took measurements against Nakahira’s giant blow-up photographs of men’s naked rear ends.

Nudity, masturbation, and scatology were among the formerly taboo subjects breached by Japanese artists, most famously by the Butoh dancer Tatsumi Hijikata, during these years. Photographs of his performances are included in the exhibition and catalogue.

The massive catalogue – 680 pages with 600 reproductions, co-published with Steidl – is as valuable for the critical writings it reproduces from the period, many of them translated for the first time, as it is for the images. There are interviews with Moriyama, Takanashi, Araki, and Eikoh Hosoe, as well as lesser-knowns, such as Ryuichi Kaneko, a leader in the All-Japan Students Photo Association. Excerpts from Tomatsu’s first-person account, I Am a King (1972), offer a glimpse of his work routine during a time (1967-68) of intense student unrest and his solidarity with the students’ fury at the docking of the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in a Nagasaki harbor during the height of the Vietnam War.

Nakahira is given his due here as a central figure in post-war Japanese art, as editor, photographer, and critic. Included is his appreciation from 1967 of William Klein, whose book Tokyo (1964) was decisive in developing a more aggressive rhetoric for the country’s photographers, as well as Nakahira’s 1968 theoretical essay, “Can Photography Revive Language?”

Each of the four curators contributes notes or a historical overview, and their collective foreword urges that the magazine be viewed as having a deeper and wider meaning than its surface elements: “The ‘rough, blurred, out of focus’ appearance of many (although by no means all) photographs in Provoke should be seen not as a style, nor even as an expression of gestural abstraction in photography, but instead as an attempt to give form to contingency and ephemerality.”

It is to counter the erasing rush of history that ambitious projects like this one are so necessary.