“For me, photography is not a means by which to create beautiful art, but unique way of encountering genuine reality” once wrote Daido Moriyama, one of the celebrated members of PROVOKE, the iconic 1960s Japanese counterculture review.
AN ALTERNATIVE FORM OF PROTEST
Founded in 1968 by a group of young artists, Takuma Nakahira, Yutaka Takanashi (photographers), Koji Taki (critic), and Takahito Okada (poet), PROVOKE was the first postwar avant-garde photography magazine to express its political views, an alternative voice in the face of the prevailing trends of that time.
In this era of public outcry, when Japanese people were deploring Japan’s alliance with the US, the Vietnam War, the westernization of Japanese culture and the ruthless speed of industrialization propelled by the neoliberal government, PROVOKE displayed an alternative form of protest.
This unconventional approach expressed a political view and also encouraged the reader to think differently, challenging the rules and conventions of photography in the context of massive social upheaval. The involvement of its founders in the student protest movements of 1968, as well as their independent and alternative vision, represented a landmark for Japanese photography, then embodied by Shomei Tomatsu.
AN UNCONVENTIONAL APPROACH TO PHOTOGRAPHY
In the aim to explain reality through resisting photos, PROVOKE’s members refuted traditional documentary modes and stereotypical narratives. Mis-shots were therefore considered authentic and equal to any other shots; grainy, blurry pictures that would normally be discarded were deemed an aesthetic worthy of consideration, a style called “are-bure-boke” (“blurry and out of focus”). The PROVOKE photographers not only pitted themselves against objective documentary work, they also contested the conventions of the so-called ‘well-taken’ photograph and encouraged its readers to think independently.
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.”
Nakahira invited Daidō Moriyama to join the second edition for which he compiled 22 pictures. His contribution to the third and last issue of PROVOKE displayed images of a supermarket and its American goods at night, very much along the lines of Andy Warhol’s depiction of commercialization and mass production.
Soon after, thanks to their unconventional/singular style, Moriyama, Tomatsu, Nakahira and Takanashi would become legendary icons. Their rise to the spotlight, and thus to the government’s attention, did little to prevent the PROVOKE group from publishing their third volume in August 1969, right before the group dissolved.
“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, Takuma Nakahira, Takahiko Okada, Yutaka Takanashi and Daido Moriyama.