There is an unmistakable kinetic energy to the distinctive genre of post-war Japanese photography—a politically charged and deeply sensual collective act of defiance and a declaration of freedom from institutional bondage both immediate and latent. Thanks in large part to the short-lived but influential photo magazine Provoke, photography in Japan during the 1960s and 70s became a locus for activists, artists, and performers of all creeds, a unifying catalyst for critical inquiry and expression around which a monumentally significant tide of elevated seeing could come to wash away the soot of conflict. Provoke: Between Protest and Performance—Photography in Japan 1960/1975, the catalog accompanying the world’s first exhibition about Provoke and its founders, attempts to amalgamate the vast and diverse range of images and writings produced in this prolific period into a single authoritative volume. And against all odds, it succeeds.
Provoke, a small-scale magazine published only three times in Japan between 1968 and 1969, nevertheless gave rise to its own artistic period. It was where singular photographers Yutaka Takanashi and Takuma Nakahira joined forces with critic Taki Koji and writer Takahiko Okada to question traditions of aesthetics and activism in photography in relation to the sweltering social climate in Japan, specifically in Tokyo where they lived and worked. The movement was, more than anything, an intense interrogation of stifling tradition and stolid compliance. The catalog examines the work of these core members of Provoke in conjunction with the culture of cathartic performance and mass protest that fueled and followed the brief life of the magazine itself. Placing these myriad parts in context was hardly an easy task.
The volume and its accompanying exhibition were made possible through extensive collaboration between The Art Institute of Chicago, LE BAL (Paris), Fotomuseum Winterthur (Switzerland), and the Albertina Museum in Vienna. The lack of adequate translations—or any translations at all—of writings from the Provoke period, combined with the rarity of physical copies and photographs from that era, means that much of the content of this catalog is seeing the light of day outside of Japan for the very first time. It is an achievement that took immeasurable efforts of translation, factual and subjective consultation, and curatorial dexterity. The result is that, finally, there exists a cohesive and articulate documentation of Provoke.
Flipping through the pages of the book is itself an inundating experience. Many spreads are full-bleed, contained only by the physical barriers of the pages themselves—their palpable inertia blurring the barriers between image and reality, between preserved past and tangible present. An objective behind much of the photography in Provoke was in fact to eradicate the preciousness of the image and the sanctity of its physical manifestations in order to elicit a more direct, critical, and cathartic experience of seeing. This approach captures a reality that only the camera is capable of translating, the brief moments undefinable by any other form of representational language. As Yutaka Takanashi stated in his preface to the first issue of Provoke, “In such instances, language transcends its fixed, conceptualized self, and is transformed into a new language, or rather a new idea. […] This is why we have been so bold as to give Provoke the subtitle ‘Provocative Materials for Thought.’”
The catalog features each issue of the magazine reprinted in succession, providing the closest experience many have had to actually reading the original copies, of which startlingly few were produced. By allowing the reader to sift through the issues in such a seamless, direct fashion, the book concretely imparts a weighty significance to the publication and emphasizes the startling independence that placed it, in its existence somewhere in between politics and art, so far outside the traditional expectations of what photography could accomplish both viscerally and externally.
The book is broken up into three sections: “Protest,” “Provoke,” and “Performance,” each interspersed with essays, diaries, and manifestos from Provoke-era writers as well as articles by modern authorities on the subject. The narrative arc of these three categories is an effective and encompassing definition of what inspired Provoke, what it grew to be, and what influence it ultimately wielded. The works of relevant photographers who were not directly involved in the publication of Provoke are also included—from Kikuji Kawada’s The Map, a soaring and wrenching metaphor for spiritual struggle and direction, to Nobuyoshi Araki’s own early images of protest that preceded his now championed later work. The inclusive nature of the book accessibly contextualizes Provoke, as opposed to placing it on an untouchable critical pedestal.
For all of the social commentary and political context surrounding Provoke, to see it printed is an undeniably emotional experience. As purely aesthetic devices, the images are both graphically unnerving and collectively trance-inducing, forming a visual tapestry of noise that inundates and swaddles the viewer with the gritty purity of photography unhinged. Beyond the strictly visual, they are empathetic and visceral translations of interpersonal and communally intimate moments. From the city street to the bedroom, we feel the brutal emotionality of a nation in a collective crisis, seeking solace and change in hostile and uncharted territory. To see these images is not to just stop at blind sentiment, but to feel them deeply as well. The result is to feel and think critically all at once, and perfectly in balance. Provoke championed this in the 1960s, and Provoke: Between Protest and Performance does the same for us today.