11.02.22 - What is the Provoke aesthetic? Part 2

The subtitle for this entry should be something similar to “Quick wins, tropes, geographical challenges and Bloody Moriyama”.

1. Quick Wins.

If you want to slide surreptitiously into the Provoke inspired genre of street and documentary (and faux documentary) style of shooting, you need to understand and do a few things.

First of all, don’t forget that the images from this period were not about technical excellence. Throw out everything you’ve been brainwashed with via camera clubs, online forums and commercial blogs. You’re shooting snapshots, but the opposite of what is generally expected from most other photographers. This is properly niche stuff. You are photographing an atmosphere.  So, without attempting to churn out anti-photography masterpieces from the offset (but feel free to try!), much like exercise, there’s a few specific “warm ups” you can do to show the community what your specific intentions are.

Firstly, the boring stuff. Gear. Primarily you’re probably going to be shooting in black and white and the look generally is high contrast and grainy/noisy. So, if you’re shooting film, push that shit. Tri-X, Ilford HP5 or if you really love your grain, Ilford’s Delta 3200. I used to be an ardent HP5 shooter. At box speed, its decidedly “meh”, but when pushed, even just a stop, it shines - super contrasty and bullet proof exposure latitude. Digital? Yeah. Get a point and shoot and if it has a high contrast black and white setting, use that for your base. Screw RAW. You want to make shooting fluid and embrace mistakes. If you’re going to worry about the technical aspects or being mocked by your peers, then you’re looking at the wrong genre. 

Why Point and shoots? Size, portability, versatility and generally none threatening. But no hard and fast rules - whatever works for you. Once you’ve decided on your gear of choice, embrace super deep DOF. Think f/8 or deeper in most circumstances on a 28mm or equivalent lens. This way, you’re pretty much zone focusing, but don’t get too hung up on the word “focus”. That isn’t really a thing for us. Get happy shooting 1/15 sec and longer exposures also. Turn off imaging stabilisation, if that’s a thing for you. 

2. Tropes.

Yes, you’re going to have to get used to the fact that even the nichest of niche genres have their massively over used tropes. And I am as guilty as anyone in using them. The following list is not conclusive, but I think bullet points make it easier on the eye (not often you’ll see me promoting that!). So, here goes:

* Shooting at night

* Crows and ravens (or pigeons). Close up. In Flight.


*Stray dogs on the street (big one that!) or failing that, cats (boo!)

*People on pedestrian crossings

*Japanese people. Or people who originate from East Asia (I’ll come to this in Geographical Challenges)

*Females with long dark hair

*Females wearing fishnet tights (or “mesh tights” as people in the know call them)

*Entanglements of cables (preferably overhead power cables)

*People with umbrellas up (preferably transparent or black)

*Fish (live carp), dead fish on ice at a market, squid and octopi.

*Macro shots of eyes and lips


*Flies (as in the insect, not your zipper)

*Salary men

*Cityscapes (at night)

*The sea (at night)

*Rotary dial telephone booths (good luck find one of those!)

*Repeated displays of cereal boxes, hats and anything a bit obscure.

*Ambiguous, not explicit but still erotic images of women. Preferably in seedy hotel rooms. I’ll leave that with you.

That should be enough to get you going. I could have mentioned a lot more obscure things like “miners finishing a days work” (Provoke issue 1) or pictures of men’s buttocks taken secretly at a public baths (Takuma Nakahira, For a Language to Come - that’s arguably an offence of Voyeurism in the UK!), but I think the above list is what is most associated with the genre, or certainly, what is regurgitated most often. But, much like shooting a high contrast B&W jpg as an aesthetic starting point - use these tropes the same way and build from them - push the genre. I think on a personal level, so long as you stay within the remit of photographing what would not normally be accepted at our friends the camera club and online forums and sticking with the “Are Bure Boke” principle, then anything can be fair game.

3. Geographical Challenges.

Right, let’s get this out of the way. Provoke was a Japanese collaboration, shot in and around Japan by Japanese creatives. The whole thing (somewhat understandably) has a very unique Japanese flavour to it.

The UK (where I reside) has a population of 67.22 million people. Out of that number, 63 thousand people are Japanese vs twice that number of Chinese nationals (reported to be 124 thousand). Japanese culture is present in the UK if you really do your homework, but we don’t have the Japanese equivalent to “Chinatowns”. Also, the UK is 5716 miles from Japan, so I can’t really just “nip over” at the weekend.

So, what is the solution if you have been geographically jinxed or want to stay as true as possible to the aesthetic?

It’s something that I’ve struggled with for some time. 

In the end, I compromise. Some aspects from that list above are freely available in the UK. Some are not. Generally, in place of creepily hunting out Asian people, I’ll shoot people with dark hair and perhaps who dress in a way that I think fits the image. That’s not to say that I don’t shoot the shit out of Chinese New Year. Because I do. 

So, I take what I can get. Because if I sit around waiting for the ideal set of circumstances, then I’d never shoot. 

However, if you either live in Japan or somewhere close enough where it is more easily accessible, then lucky you. And know that I hate you.

4. Bloody Moriyama.

If you know about Provoke already, then chances are you are already more than familiar with the extremely prolific (to this day) Daido Moriyama (who’s cracking on 83 years old now).

Moriyama has a wealth of publications to his name and still very much carries on in the spirit of the Provoke movement, so its understandable (if not sometimes frustrating) that he is the person most associate with Provoke (despite only joining the publication a third of the way through).

Such is Moriyama’s output that (and I realise that this is near blasphemy) that I often have to wade through quite a lot of “meh” stuff, to find his pearlers. And, thankfully, there are many of those. 

Moriyama generally shoots in and around Tokyo, specifically in the Shinjuku ward. However, this doesn’t mean he doesn’t travel. And this doesn’t mean that he also doesn’t stray away from the Provoke tropes either. He does. And in doing so, creates new tropes for the Church of Provoke to pray to. Pantomime is a book made up of images that Moriyama shot when he was only 25 years old and is essentially a series of images of foetuses suspended in formaldehyde, published recently in 2020. To me, this opens up a new area to explore both aesthetically and philosophically. But you can see, this is a very different set of images than from the actual source material of Provoke, but completely fits. Because Moriyama continues to shoot an atmosphere.

And for me, that is the thing about this genre that most don’t understand. Both in singular images and also in long form projects, at its heart, it aims to capture what most do not want to and in doing so, its raison d être is to irritate, confuse, make you feel slightly uncomfortable, to … Provoke. 

28.11.21 - What is the Provoke aesthetic? Part 1

For the people who have actually heard of the very limited publication of Provoke magazine that was originally published over an nine month period between 1968 and 1969, culminating in three issues only, most will have found their way there by association with prolific Japanese photographer, Daido Moriyama. In fact, Moriyama only joined Provoke in Issue 2, with it being founded by photographers Takuma Nakahira, Yutaka Takanashi, poet Takahiko Okada and art critic Koji Taki.

As a movement, Provoke represents many things. The magazines own subtitle is shiso no tame no chohatsuteki shiryo (Provocative documents for the sake of thought). And its manifesto is equally as vague: 

‘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.’

However, it may have been Yutaka Takanashi himself who best described the ethos of Provoke as:

‘Photography was too explanatory, too narrational for me…It was natural for me to join Provoke…They said they were photographing atmosphere.’

And I think this is perhaps the best definition. It is, of course a very particular sort of atmosphere. 

I often use the hashtag #antiphotography to accompany my images. Provoke remains quite “anti-establishment” insofar as commercial photography goes. If one were to go to an internet photography forum or social media group about photography (where there are expectations and rules) then these images would likely be summarily dismissed as “bad”. Not just because of the are-pure-boke trademark look (grainy/rough, blurry, out of focus) but also because the movement questioned “What is photography? What should we photograph? How should we photograph?” - it was a quiet rebellion of sorts. Instead of going out into the world with a defined agenda, the Provoke photographers simply recorded what they witnessed passively, through snap shot image making, which lacked the expected rules of composition and clarity. 

Minoru Shimizu argued that the pre-requisite abstraction evident throughout the Provoke established “look” (he was in particular referring to Moriyama, but we can apply this to all involved) was:

‘The features of this style can be listed: fragmentariness, a sense of speed, images appearing to be damaged, wildness, traces, a sense of unbalance, printing failures, time-lapse, scraps of negatives, scenes that come out of the dark only through the flash, no viewfinder etc. These are all expressions of a kind of ‘subtraction’, a means to erase the photographer’s self, his thoughts, subjective expressions and intentions. In other words, the photographs try to not see, not to think and not to choose…To Moriyama, grainy, blurry, out-of-focus was an important method of deletion, but only in order to show the real world as it was. In other words, grainy, blurry, out-of-focus reveals the scars left after the membrane of the fake reality has been taken off in order to hollow out the ‘real’ existence. This real world, then, is expressed through violence towards the photographs. The more real the photographs are, the more scars they have, the more they are worn away. The real world can only appear if the usual world disappears.’

To me, in the simplest of terms, Provoke has always been an artistic two fingers up to what the expected norm of photography is. Whilst it is hard to place it as a genre (street, social documentary, take your pick) and its does indeed now have its own visual cliches and tropes, for me, the clue is in the title. Its images should “Provoke”. Not necessarily having to be explicit (although sometimes, yes) or blunt, but perhaps like a visual itch that you can’t reach in order to scratch. An irritant. Something dissonant. But amongst all of the visual chaos, there is still harmony - some connective tissue that a viewer can see and thinks “these images belong together”.

I’ll be exploring my understanding and approach to this in Part 2.

08.05.21 - Fill in the blanks

So, for the last couple of years, I’ve been shooting what could very loosely be described as “street photography”. And, although I enjoy the particular genre as a thing (its accessible, free, constantly surprising etc), I actually find most street photography pretty, well, boring, I guess. 

Generally, if you look at street shots across the web then it’s usually one of two things:

1. Shots of people walking, people walking past advertisements or street art, people walking through shards of light, people on their phones, street performers, buskers, the homeless, the backs of people, slightly creepy shots of ladies etc. This is what I’d suggest is most common.

2. Layering or gimmick shots - using very deep depth of field to await multiple components to come together to create a shot that on the surface seems to be compositionally complex (the photographers will probably try and argue that this is achieved by having a very trained eye and predicting the “decisive” moment. But, if I’m being honest, I’m sceptical (to try and put it politely, when I want to actually call bullshit). What I actually suspect happens in 99.9% of cases is that photographers will pick a spot and machine gun their way to success. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors*, with more than a pinch of pretentiousness.

Look ^ some randomer on their phone. Easy.

It’s hard to find middle ground. It happens, of course, when luck strikes (my favourite) or when you specifically plan a shoot when something beyond the norm is occurring (protests, festivals etc), but it’s usually one or the other.

I can’t give you an example of purposeful layering because it’s not really my thing that - fitting in with the cool kids. If you want to see many (MANY) examples of this, then head to the HCSP group on Flickr and fill your boots. I suppose the reason I take issue with this is because its a bit like a forum mentality - to fit in, you have to copy everyone else. Doing something different is seen as shitty or just plain wrong or amateurish. 

Don’t get me wrong - all art is theft, it’s ALL been done before, so I can’t say that I don’t emulate a style. I definitely do. However, I have a little personality quirk, where I generally root for the underdog and enjoy niches. Small companies, who try harder, uncommon products or things that aren’t particularly in vogue - or were in vogue, but perhaps last season (I’m unfashionable, okay, there - I’ve said it). But doing stuff that few do is where I often find comfort. It isn’t therapy, but it’s certainly therapeutic for me.

So, that middle ground? That brings us nicely to the concept of anti-photography. 

The concept of this (most notably established by the Provoke era of photography) is that  making images of the mundane, the common, subjects that perhaps no one else would, it’s sort of an anarchic reaction to what is expected by the masses or accepted as “proper photography” (bullshit klaxon). But it is still really a gimmick. Maybe not in the late 60’s and early 70’s (when Provoke was originally published), but for the small few who attempt to emulate this (un?)style - yeah, it’s certainly a diluted version. 

But, its saving grace is that it is relatively uncommon still on the whole and is still definitely divisive and against the grain of what is judged as “good”.

So, what you hopefully end up with is images from category 1 of street photography (the banal, the mundane, the common and overlooked) but with more than a dash of category 2 (a gimmick), albeit the gimmick here is an uncommon one - purposefully “bad” photography that is still interesting. Usually with lots of ambiguity and a side order of abstraction. And what is the simplest form of abstraction in photography? It’s arguably black and white imagery. I have to push myself to shoot B&W because I have shot colour for so long that I now associate patterns of complimentary colours etc, but I usually find in the long term that I am more satisfied with B&W images because they make you think a little more (or make ME think a little more). Colour images spoil us - they spoon feed us information and don’t require us to think too much. With B&W, we have to imagine how things might have looked - if only for a split second longer. Add a few Provoke staples to that - blur, grain (or noise, if you want to be arsey about it) and deep, obsidian, crushing blacks then I liken that to giving our creative imagination a proper work out. You might not want to start doing it, but once you have and you get it, it’s a lot more satisfying than being continuously spoon fed. 

So lets look at this again:

I deliberately chose this image because it’s one of the most boring ones I could find. It really is just a guy on his phone. Urgh. Just look at his face! Oh, wait a minute - you can’t see his face?

Is this sort of social commentary  on us, as a society, being addicted to our phones and social media? And branding becoming more prominent and important than people’s personalities or identities? (In this case, the Golden Arches?). 

Ambiguity innit? Filling in the blanks. Food for thought (see what I did there? McDonalds? Food? No? I’ll get my coat).

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