The last and perhaps the most lavish of the Provoke-era photobooks, Yutaka Takanashi’s Toshi-e (Towards the City), was published in 1974. By that time, Japan was a very different place than it had been a half-decade prior when the Provoke collective began. Several years of political protests—similar to those in America—had taken place, and the dawning of the global oil crisis was about to change Japan’s fortunes in dramatic ways once again.
Provoke was founded in 1968 by a small group of writers and photographers, including Takanashi himself. Their aim was to create a new photographic discourse, challenging the relationship between images and language in such a way as to enrich them both. Their preferred aesthetic style was referred to as are-bure-boke, characterized by rough, grainy, and unfocused images—a sharp contrast to the more formalized style found in most Japanese photography at that time.
Even within the collections published by Provoke, however, Takanashi’s work stands out. While all of the other photographers shot in a seemingly offhand manner to achieve their goals, Takanashi’s images seem lighter, almost playful in contrast with the dark, brooding work of his peers.
This playfulness would bloom even more in his later works, but it is clearly evident in Toshi-e. In one photograph, a group of women reclining in a salon could be taken at a glance for simply that: a group of women reclining in a salon. But it is a large child’s head peeking through the window of the salon that is the real subject, revealing that the salon is actually a room in a dollhouse. There is a whimsy in that shot that is harder to find in the other Provoke photographers’ work.
While he was willing to be playful, however, Takanashi was every bit as focused and thoughtful about his work as the others. He wrote that he moved between extremes in his approach: “As I was working on this series [Toshi-e], two conflicting creatures settled into my body. One is a ‘hunter of images,’ aiming exclusively to shoot down the invisible, and the other is a ‘scrap picker’ who can only believe in what is visible.” His work in Toshi-e tends toward the “hunter” side of his work, continuing the Provoke ethos of seeking to unearth new language with images. These competing twins of creativity speak to the contrast between the objective and the subjective in photography. Photographer and historian John Szarkowski described a similar set of impulses, dividing them into “mirrors” and “windows.” One can use the camera as a window on the world, or as a mirror to reflect the photographer or his subject back onto itself. Whichever metaphor one prefers, Takanashi’s work in Toshi-e contains fine examples of both types.
Many of the images were taken through the sunroof of Takanashi’s car, capturing the city at a distance from street level. Indeed, the city itself seems to be the secret subject, even in the images that more directly feature people. 1974 was the beginning of the global oil crisis, and the image of a pair of children—their mother asleep, both children looking directly into the lens—could be seen as a comment on that crisis given that the Mitsubishi logo is reflected—from either a factory or a dealership—in the car window.
While Takanashi’s work in Toshi-e is just as grainy as his work for Provoke, the subjects seem clearer. Takanashi doesn’t fall into the trap of having the graininess of his images obscure his subjects. As such, the book also takes the Provoke mission to redefine photography’s relationship to language much further by having a narrative structure within the placement and order of the images themselves. Several images are reused within the book, similar to a motif in an orchestral piece. The beginning section of the book is also structured like a short film, fading in at the beginning and fading out at the end.
Takanashi’s approach seems to be an attempt to fully understand the city by shooting it from all possible vantage points: distant landscapes taken from the countryside place the scope of the city, in its entirety, into a visual context, and can be found alongside close examinations of the city’s residents and buildings. All of his differing methods and subjects combine to form a larger portrait of the city itself.
It is an ambitious approach for a photobook, and one that pays off for Takanashi in this assured collection. While his subjects are clearly of their time, none of the images themselves feels dated in the slightest, even to viewers unfamiliar with the philosophy at work behind the lens. With only minor updates, the image of the elderly woman smoking a cigarette while her apparent granddaughter stands next to her—the epitome of unaffected cool in her dark sunglasses—could be viewed today with no loss of impact or power.
Takanashi’s work would get somewhat more readily accessible within a few years, some of the hard edges of his work softening over time, but Toshi-e remains possibly the best first impression he could make on any viewer who enjoys photobooks or loves photography as an art form.