28.11.21 - What is the Provoke aesthetic? Part 1November 28, 2021
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.