“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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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