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).

12.01.21 - An introduction

About pages on websites are horrible to write. 

I hate it when people write in the third person about themselves. It may be considered to be “correct” but its impersonal and borderline pretentious. It’s highly likely I’m going to nuke mine and write something minimal. It’s a highly uncomfortable experience.

I’d much rather explain a little about myself in a more conversational way. As if we were friends. And to show that I’m appreciative of you even bothering to look at this occasional journal entry.

So, who am I? What can I tell you about me?

I can tell you that I have absolutely no formal background in art or photography and that everything I do know (which isn’t much), is self taught. 

I work in the public sector by day and have a family. I am quite lazy and gluttonous and as a result, a little fat (could be an under exaggeration). Gluttony is my biggest sin. With food and anything else that takes my interest. I consume and consume and consume, to the point where I feel a little sick. 

This goes double for my photography. You will see from the galleries of my site that I used to shoot street on 35mm (well, more like street portraits), then I turned to beauty on medium format before doing the same, but on integral Polaroid film. 

The latter two, I have really enjoyed, especially when I have been able to collaborate with other creatives. I do like a good prep. I usually revisit this genre in the summer months, get a couple of shoots under my belt and bail, before I fall out of love with it. That’s another issue of mine - boredom. Boredom, borne out of frustration. Despite me enjoying shooting beauty, the results thereafter are usually somewhat unrewarding in the long term, personally. One often worries if such an area of photography is taken seriously by your peers. But I shouldn’t, because who actually cares?

As a result of this, I often return to the street, usually in the winter months.

My street photography is often the very antithesis of what I shoot in summer. Probably most easily dismissed as a poor man’s attempt at being a Moriyama clone, but with a lot less interesting geographical environment. 

It’s true. I’m massively influenced by Daido Moriyama, Anders Petersen, Jacob Aue Sobol and Michael Ackerman. This isn’t to say I shoot like them, though or to their standard. But, I’m quite good at spotting themes. 

If you’ve looked at my latest street images, you may be thinking “The guy has seen images from Provoke magazine, got himself a GR and is shooting high contrast B&W”. And you’d be right. However, as a qualifier, I’d add that those elements alone do not encapsulate the spirit of Provoke. I won’t quote Wikipedia (often dangerous to do so) but I saw it as a two fingers to what at the time was contemporary, successful photography (hence why I have called it Anti-photography here). Mostly B&W and grainy, yes. But also often deliberately out of focus. Blurry.  Images of the mundane. Snapshots. Records. All with an underlying theme. A canker (as Shakespeare would call it) - a theme of decay, disquiet, dissonance - something to unsettle or borderline irritate the viewer. 

Ironically, my “anti-photography” is my attempt to do serious photography. And, whilst I appreciate the majority won’t “get it”, it’s the most honest photography I can shoot.  And the more comfortable I become, the more truths I’ll end up revealing about myself (I’m not mysterious, just cautious/private). As my horrific about page notes, all my images, in some way, are self portraits. 

You just don’t get to see my fat face.

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