Earlier this week I heard the news that one of the photographers that I’ve long admired, Takuma Nakahira, had passed away at the age of 77. Nakahira was one of the triumvirate of Provoke photographers, alongside the Yutaka Takanashi and the more celebrated (in the West) Daido Moriyama (who I had the pleasure of meeting a few years ago). Daido joined Provoke after the first issue had been published by Takanashi and Nakahira, with Koji Taki (a critic) and Takahiko Okada (a writer). The magazine looked to interrogate the relationship between the printed word and image, and it featured the following manifesto:“The image by itself is not a thought. It cannot possess a wholeness like that of a concept. Neither is it an interchangeable code like language. Yet its irreversible materiality – the reality that is cut out by the camera – constitutes the opposite side of language, and for this reason at times it stimulates the world of language and concepts. When this happens, language transcends its fixed and conceptualised self, transforming into a new language, and therefore new thought.
At this singular moment – now – language loses its material basis – in short its reality – and drifts into space, we photographers must go on grasping with our own eyes those fragments of reality that cannot possibly be captured with existing language, actively putting forth materials against language and against thought. Despite some reservations, this is why we have given Provoke the subtitle “provocative materials for thought”.” (Vartanian, Kenekom, 2009, p17)
Their shared aesthetic was one of are, bure, boke (grainy, blurry, out of focus). In using this style, the photographers left information out of their images, reducing the clarity of narrative with the aim of creating “pure” images that were not so much a source of information, but a stimulus for questions. These questions are undoubtedly of a political nature given the economic and political status within Japan at the time, with cracks in the boom economy that came with American occupation beginning to appear. Certainly, Provoke style photography rebelled against what was perceived as a Japan becoming bland and perhaps somewhat sterile through subservience to the influence of American interactions and its pop culture. 1968, when Provoke was first published, was a turbulent time in Japan, and the rest of the world for that matter, and parallels can be drawn to the writings of Barthes, Debord and the Parisian troubles of that era.
There were three issues of Provoke, and the three photographers each created a photobook during the same era, For a Language to Come (Kitanubeki Kotoba no Tamenu) by Nakahira was the first of these books and was, from my understanding, the most political, railing against America and the way that the city was changing (and therefore the very essence of Japanese community too). The images across the pages are difficult to read because of the aesthetic, but also because they’re also very much black, and white, with very little between. Perhaps this is because the version I have, an Osiris reprint, will have to be based on the original book rather than on his original negative (he became depressed because they didn’t go far enough in terms of his new “language”, and he destroyed many of them). The original book will have been printed in a gravure method, with rich and deep, inky blacks. Perhaps it’s because many of the images are taken at night, starkly contrasted with the bright Tokyo neon. Whichever, the lack of definitive and descriptive information certainly achieved their goal, and will, I suspect, put many viewers off looking at them. They’re aggressive and difficult to fathom, you have to work at it. Personally, I find the reward makes this worthwhile.
Images from osiris.co.jp
Vartanian, I. Kenekom, R. 2009. Japanese photobooks of the 1960s and ‘70s. New York. Aperture Foundation.