Provoking Thought: Japanese Post-War Photography in Focus


“Provoke”—the subject of a current exhibition at Albertina in Vienna as well as a catalogue published by Steidl—was a photographic and philosophical movement that emerged in Japan during the 1960s. While the term is most often used to describe the era and the visual language associated with it, the movement was centered around a photography magazine with the same title. Only three issues of the magazine were published between 1968 and 1969, and in 1970, the group released its final publication “First Abandon the World of Pseudo-Certainty,” a book often referred to as Provoke 4 and 5. Despite its short duration, it had tremendous influence on photography in Japan and beyond.

Shōmei Tōmatsu, Blood and Rose, Tokyo, 1969. Albertina, Vienna – permanent loan of the Austrian Ludwig Foundation for Art and Science © Shōmei Tōmatsu Estate, courtesy | PRISKA PASQUER, Cologne

The magazine was founded by a group of four artists, photographers Yutaka Takanashi and Takuma Nakahira, critic Koji Taki, and writer Takahiko Okada. Its fifth member, photographer Daidō Moriyama, joined the group on the second issue. The magazine was philosophical as much as it was photographic, and its subtitle made the agenda clear: “Provocative documents for the sake of thought."

Daidō Moriyama, Untitled, from the series Akushidento (Accident), 1969. © Daidō Moriyama/Shadai Gallery, Tokyo Polytechnic University

The countercultural movement emerged at a time when Japan was going through massive social and political changes. In 1960, Japan had strengthened diplomatic ties with the United States through the ratification of the Security treaty, and as a consequence, it had become a military base for the war against Vietnam. Newfound wealth after the war also led to shifts in economic policy and neoliberal activities of large corporations. Many Japanese took their anger to the streets, and these protests became an important inspiration and element for the artists of the Provoke era.

Anonymous, Protest Surrounding the Construction of Narita Airport, ca. 1969. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago © AI

In search of identity in post-war Japan, the artists aimed at radically questioning existing norms and conventions by actively rejecting photojournalism and the glossy commercial photography of the period: “They saw the visuals around them as part of a mass media used to promote an increasingly consumerist society. They saw the media as having lost all relation to reality, only concerning itself with presenting a virtual reality”, states the British Journal of Photography.

Anonymous, Protest Surrounding the Construction of Narita Airport, ca. 1969. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago © AIC

With their abstract visual language and their novel, conceptual approach to photography, the artists didn’t only challenge the predominant genres of photojournalism and photorealism, but also the nature of photography itself.

(1) Shōmei Tōmatsu, Editor, Takuma Nakahira, Shinjuku, Tokyo, 1964. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago © Tōmatsu Shōmei – INTERFACE (2) Yutaka Takanashi, Untitled (Toshi-e), 1969. © Takanashi Yutaka/Taka Ishii Gallery (3) Yutaka Takanashi, The Beatles, from the series Tokyoites, 1965. Albertina, Vienna © Takanashi Yutaka (4) Eikoh Hosoe, “Kamaitachi” #31, taken in 1968. Albertina, Vienna – permanent loan of the Austrian Ludwig Foundation for Art and Science © Eikoh Hosoe/Taka Ishii Gallery.

Are, bure, boke—which translates to rough, blurred, out of focus—was the aesthetic paradigm followed by the Provoke photographers. Rather than to objectively document the world around them, their cameras became a means to depict each artist’s subjective experience. They worked very dynamically, often without even looking through the viewfinder which resulted in wild, spontaneous photographs and their distinctive rough visual language.

Yutaka Takanashi, Untitled (Tatsumi Hijikata), 1969. © Takanashi Yutaka / Taka Ishii Gallery, © Keio University Art Center / Courtesy of Butoh Laboratory Japan.

The way the photographers of the Provoke era experimented with the boundaries of photography and favored conceptualism over realism was groundbreaking. Despite its short-lived nature, Provoke as a magazine and as a movement permanently changed photography in Japan and beyond, and influenced generations of photographers to come, way into the age of digitalisation.

Daidō Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira, Okada Takahiko, Yukata Takanashi, Kōji Taki, Provoke 3, cover, 1969. © Nakahira Gen/ Moriyama Daidō/ Takahiko Okada /Takanashi Yukata/Taki Koji.
Taki Kōji, photograph from Provoke 3, 1969. © Taki Yōsuke
Daidō Moriyama, photograph from Provoke 3, 1969. © Daidō Moriyama

The book “Provoke: Between Protest and Performance” edited by Diane Dufour and Matthew Witkovsky will be published by Steidl on March 31, 2016. It is a compilation of the groundbreaking Japanese photography journal of the late 1960s and serves as a catalogue for the world’s first ever exhibition on the topic which is currently on display at Albertina in Vienna.

Exhibition schedule:
Albertina, Vienna, January 29 to May 18, 2016
Fotomuseum Winterthur, May 28 to August 28, 2016
Le Bal, Paris, September 14 to December 11, 2016
The Art Institute of Chicago, January 28 to May 7, 2017

Find out more about the exhibition here or or pre-order a copy of the book here.

written by Teresa Sutter on 2016-03-15 #news #lifestyle #book #exhibition #japan #provoke #protest-photography #post-war-photography


  1. hervinsyah
    hervinsyah ·

    Also inspired lomography ten golden tules ;p

  2. sirio174
    sirio174 ·

    great article

  3. lomodesbro
    lomodesbro ·

    this is getting to the nitty gritty

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