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.

*Manequins

*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

*CRT TVs

*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. 

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