The exclusive claim of photography amongst the visual arts is that it is able to capture the moment. For the photographers featured in our current exhibition, however, this has been more of an elusive aim than an authoritative claim. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” with its precise organisation of forms, is an event that Daido Moriyama insists is indefinite, and his work expresses the idea that movement and moment are in fact the same thing. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer realised this as the ‘vanity of existence’:
That which has been no longer is; it as little exists as does that which has never been. But everything that is in the next moment has been. Thus the most insignificant present has over the most significant past the advantage of actuality, which means that the former bears to the latter the relation of something to nothing.
Moriyama understood that nothing lies in careful composition. By focusing on the seemingly insignificant present, they recognise the crucial advantage of capturing actuality — of capturing something.
But one moment in post-war Japanese photography that was captured precisely was the Provoke moment — and it was precisely that, a moment: it was neither a school nor a style. In fact, the rough and ready are, bure, boke (rough, blurred, out of focus) aesthetic was already popular before the magazine was published. Begun in November 1968 by an avant-garde collective of writers and photographers, which included Kohi Taki, Takuma Nakahira, Takahiko Okada, Yutaka Takanashi, and Daido Moriyama (who joined with the 2nd issue), Provoke magazine, subtitled Shiso no tame no chohatsuteki shiryo (Provocative Resources for Thought) was a radical revision of the prevailing photographic conventions. Lasting just three issues, the magazine culminated after a year and a half with First Abandon the World of Pseudo-Certainty, a book often referred to as Provoke 4 and 5. The publication’s platform united five individuals, who, despite being quite distinct from one another, were able to join forces and set a course that would transform Japanese photography.
The basic aim of the Provoke group was to free photography from subservience to the language of words. They regarded photography as a link between free writing, theatre, and underground cinema; an art form that was as much a performance as Tatsumi Hijikata’s Butoh dance, Shuji Terayama’s experimental theatre, or Nagisa Oshima’s New Wave films, such as Diary of a Shinjuku Thief. The magazine’s manifesto, written by Taki and Nakahira, and signed also by Okada and Takanashi, was explicit in its renunciation of photographic and grammatical orthodoxy:
Today, when words have lost their material base—in other words, their reality—and seem suspended in mid-air, a photographer’s eye can capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is. He can submit those images as a document to be considered alongside language and ideology. This is why, brash as it may seem, Provoke has the subtitle, ‘provocative documents for thought.
Provoke, then, was as much a philosophical and political journal as it was a photography magazine. Formed in reaction to the physical occupation of the American army and the psychological colonisation of American culture, the magazine was a cry of youthful rebellion, filled with hedonism, despair and rage.
Although Moriyama did not join the magazine until its second issue, the group’s aesthetic approach left an indelible mark on his creative process. His book Farewell Photography (1972) is the most radical document of the Provoke era, and as Martin Parr and Garry Badger have stated, “the most extreme photobook ever published.” Moriyama pushed both the photographic sequence and the photograph itself to the limits of legibility, forging a novel photographic language that has inspired generations of photographers since. Sharing the gritty, intuitive, and existentialist approach of Moriyama, his friend Takuma Nakahira — the lead political voice for the Provoke group — revels in his own For A Language to Come (1970), a book that came to define the whole Provoke movement. In the same year, a book containing the group’s theoretical texts was published, First Abandon the World of Certainty. This was to be their ultimate call to arms in a bid to establish a new photographic idiom.
Although Provoke was a very short-lived moment, with early editioned print runs of just 1,000, the impact it has had on photography since has been immense. The post-Provoke era was dominated by the prolific Nobuyoshi Araki, who remains a powerful force with over 450 photobooks published to date. His first book A Sentimental Journey (published privately in 1971) is still considered his magnum opus, perfectly stating his aesthetic position in what he calls the “I Novel.” Tokyo Lucky Hole (1983-85) is one of Araki’s best known and most controversial books; documenting sex clubs of Shinjuku. In this period, Araki’s technique is that of the voracious, non-stop clicking photographer, capturing moments in motion.
The Provoke members were rivals as well as friends. But this kind of healthy competition is conducive to a truly creative environment, and explains the enduring influence and popularity of their work. This group of pioneers laid the groundwork for a technique that involves saturating photographs to the point of looking wet, with content savagely abstracted, and forms leaden or hallucinatory — a style that remains popular today. The Provoke members’ exclusive claim to this style, however, continues to be protected by the collectors who demand reprints, and in 2001 Steidl published Japanese Box, a book featuring reprints of the magazine, at a price of $2,000. The Provoke movement, it would seem, was much more than a mere moment.