Provoking new visions
An Essay by Ryoko Kleiger
In this essay I want to provoke an idea. That photography has hidden meaning, and that by using a little magic, or technique, as the professionals will call it, you can provoke a conversation from a viewer. I will attempt to persuade you, the reader that the photography group known for the Provoke magazine simply wanted to teach people this simple lesson. .Taki Köji says it best in the opening to the fourth issue of Provoke. That, to summarize, expressionism is a way to see the world differently and in a new light from the world we see in our day-to-day. Provoke was trying show people of the time that the world still had some magic left, magic being the inexplicable, surreal, and curious things that were left hidden by the new language of the world. This new language was the language created from photographs that create no conversation.
Provoke was a magazine that was released in small editions in Tokyo in 1968 and 1970. One could say that the magazine was a sort of indie-zine or small run self-published magazine similar to the hundreds of indie-zines found at Tokyo’s leading zine fair, Comic Market, Or Comiket for short. In reality, zines are basically magazines that are printed in short runs and only sold to a few hundred people.
Today, hundreds of photography zines can be found on the floors of Comiket, all similar in style to the Aru-Bure-Boke aesthetic, some even resembling the Provoke magazines. But this essay is not about Comiket. This is about Provoke. The photographers that banded together to create the Provoke magazine changed a generation. They believed that the modern and mainstream world was not what it seemed and directly wanted to question, even fight the new condition that was being perpetuated by television, magazines and advertising.
Provoke photographers were tired of the way photography was being used in the mainstream print media. It was only about 40 to 50 years after World War 2 and merely 4 years after the Olympics before the first issue of Provoke came out. Japan was frantically consuming western media and culture from Europe to include Fashion, television, and architecture. Stores such as Setan in Shinjuku would have clothing on display, that were designed with western aesthetics, even ads in fashion magazines used western models as pointed out in the film Le Mystère Koumiko by Chris Marker in 1967. Photography as a whole was used as a way to sell items, even culture.
As Ryūichi Kaneko puts it in The Primary Documents, the Provoke photographers merely wanted to ask how we as a people in Japan should use photography. When we see these mass media images, the conversation ends. We see a beautiful western model in an ad on the train telling us that we are meant to look like her and that is it. As Taki points out in his Provoke essay, the images that came in from The Vietnam war were meant to shock the viewer and give an impression of the conflict in that area of the world. That was all, to scare you and point out the bad guys as the media defined them. Again as Taki points out, the photographer Eddie Adams, whom took those images did not care about the acts being committed in the photos, he was not in anyway trying to fight the war. These images in mass culture had only one function, to tell a very basic story. The viewer was not meant to dig any deeper. They were merely there to be viewed and understood at a base level and to be flipped past.
The Provoke photographers consisted of Nakahira Takuma, Taki Koji, Takanashi Yutaka, Okada Takahiro and Moriyama Daido. The photographers of Provoke wanted to show to other photographers of the time in Japan that photography can be used as a new language as said in their manifesto,
“We as photographers must capture fragments of reality that can no longer be grasped through current language”.
As per their manifesto, they aimed to change how people saw the world around them. As I said before, the media surrounding Japan was, in the words of the Manifesto, “destroying language’s material basis.”  The idea was that people were being told what to believe. If a viewer saw a photo of something, the Vietnam photos I mentioned earlier for example, they garnered an impression from it. Also as I said before, mentioning that the photo by Eddie Adams, who was not involved in deescalating the conflict, the media released the photo to highlight a western opinion on the conflict regardless of the photographer reason for shooting the piece. The viewer is then left with a scene being described as horrific and unjust and then told the war is bad. Communication thus broken down at this point and no further discussion is warranted. The photo with accompanied media publicity was all anyone received.
If you saw a photo of Mt. Fuji in America for example, then that’s it, you have seen Mt. Fuji and you knew everything you needed to know about the mountain. Fuji is in Japan, it has snow at the top, that’s all. Another example could be in the images from my childhood, for example, of Tokyo. You’d see, for example as seen in the ads used for Nissan’s Skyline from the 70s, a picture of a semi-futuristic car along with a futuristic city backdrop. This ad, at base level in the marketing sense, purported that this car belonged to the clean Japanese future. That the land it came from, Tokyo, was a prosperous clean and industrialized land. These were the ads that made it overseas. A humorous aspect of these ads would be that in Japan the ads had New York as the backdrop city almost saying that if you buy this car you’re more western. Purchase the car in America and your part of the future purchase it in Japan and you are that much further away from the things that brought Japan to war 30 years ago. These photos gave no conversation, there was nothing hidden in them to talk about. They didn’t provoke any new thoughts.
The magazine itself had a catch phrase that simply said “Provocative materials for thought.” This simple phrase broken down into its simplest of definitions could mean that the images contained within the Provoke pages were simply meant to be provocative. On a quick glance of the magazine, one could guess as much. Images of naked person’s whose faces were slightly blurred abound, strange dystopian looking streets catch your eye. It is a very surreal scene in most images. The photos make you wonder just what on earth the photographer was thinking.
The magazine was interesting as well for its printing methods, as pointed out by Miryam Sas , because the images look more like prints.
The photos also ran into the gutter of the page, which, from a graphic design perspective, is not good. This might have been done to pull your attention to the gutter or to the image in general.
Moriyama was quoted as saying, in his interview with journalist Ivan Vartanian for Apeture, that language communicates intent straight away whereas photography does not. Photography, on the other hand, is framed by the viewers’ relation to them. The viewers relation is created by their political views, past and history towards the subject and even upbringing to summarize. Using photographs, as language isn’t useless.
In this sense we can surmise that Moriyama is trying to say that when photos are used in advertising or for media then they are not being fully utilized as a medium and that they are only being used for language. Buy this, this is good, this is bad. But when we as photographers step back and use photography to tell a story or to make the viewer think, then this is where magic happens. People stop and view the image for what it is instead of gliding past it as one does with language at in the media. Photos need to be critiqued and dissected. As Moriyama says again in the same essay, “Photography Provokes language.” Photography is meant to make you think or should be meant to make you think. We should analyze the meaning of photos.
A great example of this definition in practice is by Phillip Charrier in his essay The Making Of A Hunter. Phillip goes on to classify Moriyama as having stalker-like qualities in his work. He goes as far as citing an interview with artist Yokoo Tadanori in which Yokoo describes Daido in much the same way. Both the writer, Charrier, whose essay goes on for 10 pages classifying Daido as a type of hunter, and the artist, Yokoo, get an uneasy feeling from the photographs. Why, one could ask, do these two men feel this way about Moriyamas work. A psychological analysis may suggest that they have learned a response to certain stimuli, the stimuli being the images in the photos, from certain media, maybe movies.
The magic shown in Mr. Moriyamas work comes from what he described is the viewer’s memory. These men who are critiquing his work are in a way scared of it, the work can’t hurt them in anyway but it does indeed create an uneasy feeling. It is interesting to note that in the film Daido Moriyama: Memories of a Dog Daido is seen walking through Shinjuku’s red-light district taking picture, he is not stalking anyone. In the film he does say that he likes to take pictures of what he considers to be nasty things.
From the perspective of a filmmaker or designer, his photographs are created in a way to push the feeling forward. He knows his audience in that sense. The photos used in the Provoke issues create a surreal, uncanny presentation.
The uncanny was coined by Segmund Freud. When used it means that something creates a feeling of dread or fear. Its not an easy emotion to pin down, as Freud points out in his essay, because people experience it in general to frightening stimuli. In this same fashion the same goes for the images of Daido and of Provoke made people feel uneasy. In this way the Provoke images broke the rules and were designed to make people feel uneasy. They had an almost cinema feel to them. A great movie titled Le Jette by Chris Marker utilized what could be called Aru- Bure- Boke, which was the same aesthetic that was utilized in the Provoke magazines. It was simply defined as grainy, blurry, out of focus photographs. The movie by Chris Marker was shot on a low exposure film to give enhanced darks that were used to push certain thematic elements. The grain and darkness made some characters in the film seem scary and even terrifying. In certain photos used in Provoke, a person may have a blurred face but an in-focused semi nude body. The combined darkness, blur and strangeness of the photo could have an uncanny effect on a person. This combined with the political climate of the time, Japan’s negotiations during the Vietnam war, the student movements, pink film culture, and city life in general could have created a frame of mind in the viewer that would lead them to see an eerie image. This would be uncanny but the viewer doesn’t know this, its as if by magic that the viewer picks up an image and then feels something from it. This is the creation of conversation, knowing what to do to make a photo interesting enough to warrant one.
In summary I believe that the photographers of Provoke wanted to experiment and find ways to provoke feelings in people. They stumbled on magic, or movie magic, cinematography techniques to provoke these feelings. Magic by definition is conjuring tricks, unexplainable abilities or attributes. The Provoke photos were magic in this sense to the untrained eye. The majority of the members of Provoke had already been making a name for themselves with photography and some from critiquing photography so its easy to guess that these men had found a formula for extracting these feelings from the viewer. The Provoke magazines were not merely experimental throwaway doujinshi, I think they were attempting to get the people of the time to start thinking about what they were viewing. That they were missing something in the photos, and that they were being shown in the media. That there was magic there, be it a hidden message, or something hiding in the mainstream media. That maybe the photographer whom took the images left something for the viewer to think about or to build a conversation from. Provoke was trying to educate people on how to view photography as something more than just a simple advertisement. Photos can start a conversation. They are not devoid of one. They require critique.
Charrier, Philip, “THE MAKING OF A HUNTER: MORIYAMA DAIDŌ 1966-1972,” in History of Photography 34 (3): United Kingdom:Taylor & Francis, (2010): 268-90.
Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works edited by James Strachey, 217-256 . London: The Hogart Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1953-74.
Kaneko, Ryuichi. “PROVOKE,” in From Postwar to Postmodern : Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents, edited by Doryun Chong, Michio Hayashi, Kenji Kajiya, and Fumihiko Sumitomo, 213-214. New York: MoMA, 2012.
Koji,Taki, Yutake ,Takanashi, Takuma ,Nakahira, Moriyama ,Daido, Takahiro, Okada, and Amano, Michie. ”WHAT IS POSSIBLE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY?,” in From Postwar to Postmodern : Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents, edited by Doryun Chong, Michio Hayashi, Kenji Kajiya, and Fumihiko Sumitomo, Transated by Hirayama Mikiko. 215-218, New York: MoMA, 2012. Originally published in Taki Koji, Takanashi Yutake, Nakahira Takuma, Daido Moriyama, Okada Takahiro, Michie Amano, Mazutashikarashisa no sekai o sutero. Shashin to gengo no shiso, Tokyo: Tabata Shoten, 1970.
Sas, Miryam,“The Provoke Era: New Languages In Japanese Photography,” in Experimental arts in postwar japan: Moments of encounter, engagement, and imagined return. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011.
Takanashi, Yutake, Nakahira ,Takuma, Koji,Taki, and Takahiro, Okada, “Provoke Manifesto,” in From Postwar to Postmodern : Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents, edited by Doryun Chong, Michio Hayashi, Kenji Kajiya, and Fumihiko Sumitomo, translated by Christopher Stehpens, 215-218. New York: MoMA, 2012. Originally published in Takanashi Yutake, Nakahira Takuma, Taki Koji, and Okada Takahiro, Provoke 1. Tokyo: Provoke, 1968.
Segell, Eliza. Daido Moriyama: Memories Of A Dog. Film. Directed/Performed by Eliza Segell. New York: Joy of Giving Something, Inc, 2006.
Vartanian, Ivan, “Daido Moriyama: The shock From Outside.,” in APETURE, NewYork: Aperture 203. (2011): 22-30.
 Koji Taki et al., ”WHAT IS POSSIBLE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY?,” in From Postwar to Postmodern : Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents. 215-218.
 Ryuichi Kaneko, “Provoke,” in From Postwar to Postmodern : Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents, ed. Doryung Chung et al. (New York: MoMA, 2012), 213-214.
 Kaneko, From Postwar to Postmodern : Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents, 213.
 Koji Taki et al., ”WHAT IS POSSIBLE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY?,” in From Postwar to Postmodern : Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents, ed . Doryung, Chung et al. (New York: MoMA, 2012), 215-218.
. Takanashi Yutake et al., “Provoke Manifesto,” in From Postwar to Postmodern : Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents, ed. Doryung, Chung et al. (New York: MoMA, 2012.), 2.
 Yutake et al., “Provoke Manifesto,” in From Postwar to Postmodern : Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents, 2.
 Miryam Sas,“The Provoke Era: New Languages In Japanese Photography,” in Experimental arts in postwar japan: Moments of encounter, engagement, and imagined return. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011), 181.
 Ivan Vartanian, “Daido Moriyama: The shock From Outside,” in APETURE, (NewYork: Aperture 203. 2011), 22-30.
 Ivan Vartanian, “Daido Moriyama: The shock From Outside,” 24
 Philip Charrier, “THE MAKING OF A HUNTER: MORIYAMA DAIDŌ 1966-1972,” in History of Photography 34, (United Kingdom:Taylor & Francis, 2010), 268-90.
 Eliza Segell, “Daido Moriyama: Memories Of A Dog. Film,” (New York: Joy of Giving Something, Inc, 2006), Film.
 Sigmund Freud, (1919). The ‘Uncanny’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, ed. by James Strachey.(The Hogart Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, London, 1953-74), 217-256.