Last year, a monumental exhibition was organized between four institutions: the Albertina in Vienna, Fotomuseum Winterthur, Le Bal in Paris, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Steidl published the accompanying catalogue. Calling this publication a catalogue, however, is like calling the Titanic a boat. The exhibition, Provoke: Photography in Japan between Protest and Performance, 1960-1975, was a major international traveling show, and the first of its kind to offer a comprehensive history of the Provoke movement in postwar Japan. Using the short-lived (they only published three issues between 1968-1969) Japanese magazine, Provoke, and the works of its founding members as the backbone of this survey, the curators brought together enormous amounts of source material to construct a narrative of this significant but turbulent period in Japanese and photographic history. Steidl’s catalogue, fittingly, is a massive block of a book - it’s not huge, measuring only about 7 x 10 inches, but it’s more than 2 inches thick, and presents 600 images over 680 pages. The sheer volume of content and information contained within is overwhelming. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but as the exhibition’s curators write in the introduction, “(the) volume treats photography in Japan in the 1960s as a pivot between protest and performance, politics and art.”
The book is divided into three sections – Protest, centering on the protest photography / book movement during the 1960s, Provoke, which reproduces content from the magazine’s three issues along with writings and images by the founding members – photographers Takuma Nakahira and Yakata Takanashi, writer Takahiko Okada, and critic Koji Taki, with the later addition of Daido Moriyama, and finally, Performance, which explores the multilayered, complex world of performance-based work that flourished in Japan from the 1950s through the mid-1970s. Every section contains reproductions of publication spreads, photographic portfolios, and ephemera, and each is well populated with essays and interviews by the artists and critics. And each section is a fascinating glimpse into the movements and motivations of the era, as well as a numerous investigations into and conversations about the nature, and in many cases, the purpose of photography.
Many of the protest photographs were made by students, and many of these students were part of university camera clubs. In Tatsuo Fukushima’s essay, A Method for Understanding the World, he picks apart the institution of the club. He decries those groups (and individuals) who “refrain from clarifying the purpose of photography” and cleave to an inward-looking perspective, exploring the world only as it mirrors the self. He declares, “Most camera clubs today are akin to storage rooms filled with junk from the past.” This statement seems too familiar, and easily applies to the state of many of our institutions of learning today.
An excellent essay by Duncan Forbes titled Photography, Protest, and Constituent Power in Japan, 1960-1975 provides some history of Japanese protest photography books with the actions of student organizations and the socio-political climate of the time and situates Provoke magazine in response to and outside of this context, noting, “Provoke takes as its subject a sudden transformation in urban space that Paul Virilio would later describe as “the overexposed city. It records a tipping point in the experience of Japanese urbanism during the 1960s…” He goes on to conclude, “Provoke, in other words, was also an index of defeat, a formally challenging neo-avant-gardism exploring the materialization of the overexposed city. However, it was a provocation deprived of, perhaps even organized against, constituent subjectivity.”
As I read this, I recalled an earlier image in the book - from a publication by the All Japan Students’ Photo Association in 1970, In This Land We Have No Country, it shows a low aerial view of the slope of a dense city. In the background, structures of varying sizes sit low to the ground, shrouded in deep shadow, while in the mid and foreground, a phalanx of new, bright, multi-story housing blocks line up in rows, so much like an advancing army. An apt visual metaphor, I think, for the disappearance of the past with the emergence of a new, disturbing, reality.
In one of the few images in the book depicting foreigners, an image by Shomei Tomatsu, from his series Chewing Gum and Chocolate, shows two African-American servicemen photographed in passing in the street. Taken from a close, low vantage point, the photograph depicts one man looming over the photographer, seeming to sneer at whatever or whomever is just out of the frame, while the other’s face is reduced to a pair of glowering eyes and brows. The image seems to ooze tension and hostility, communicating much more about the photographer than his subjects, and the painful legacy of US occupation of Japan.
Reproduced as well is a copy of Tomatsu’s diary from 1967-68, and he writes in an afterword, “We have to capture the convulsive reality of Japan without fail. Photography is, in its essential definition, a document. Photography cuts through the flow of time. The fragment of time sliced by the camera becomes the past at the very instant and, as an accumulation of instants, photography becomes a copy of history.”
Moving from the Protest into the Provoke era, pages after pages reproduce the magazine’s spreads. One note about the printing – this book is black, white, and grey. The dark shadows in the reproductions are as pools of ink on the page, and the heavy paper is slightly rough to the touch, feeling simultaneously luxurious and utilitarian. The dramatic blacks of the dense, high contrast images are regularly interspersed with the densely typed text pages, but even the small amount of white paper in these sections feels like a breath, a pause in the action. In this section, I particularly loved Takuma Nakahira’s two series, “Last Train” and “For a Language to Come” - grainy, impressionistic portfolios describing the urban experience, which bookend his marvelous essay on the photographer William Klein. He links Klein with philosopher Albert Camus, contrasts him with his contemporaries Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, and admonishes the reader, “…what we can and should do is to face the vast, endless world and, like Klein, gaze coldly at it: we should patiently record only those forms that we can see with our eyes and, as such, reconstruct the world that has already collapsed. Furthermore, the camera should not merely confess individual impressions, such as happiness or sadness, but rather be a weapon against them.” Shortly after, a conversation between Nakahira and Daido Moriyama titled Get Rid of the Word Photography offers a fascinating look into the two artists’ musings, which is followed a collection of Moriyama’s work, including, among others, the series Passerby (1964) and Accidents (1969).
The artists and works featured in the final section, Performance, run the gamut of influences and ambitions, from body art to happenings, the expressive power of dance to visceral, often sexual, bodily experiences. The frenzy of the protest era has transformed into the more controlled, conceptual experiments of performance, and even further investigation into the permutations of photographic reproduction. The book concludes with an essay examining Jiro Takamatsu’s body of work Shashin no shashin – literally, photograph of photograph. Playing with the concept of the temporality of the photograph and the object-ness of reproduction, along with the unrepeatable nature of viewing a photograph. Takamatsu said of photography, “The photograph can be an image, a world, in numbers without end, within one situation.” Like this description of the possibilities of the photograph, this book offers a kaleidoscope of perspectives, ideas, and efforts. It’s a reference book, worth repeated investigations into its contents. I feel it’s best experienced in multiple visits – there is so much to consider, so many ideas and passions contained within.
Ultimately, this book is a window; these pages offer a glimpse into this period of history; a part of the past that for many of us always seemed very far away. But in reading this book, I am aware of how similar the rage and desperation present in many these images and texts seems to be to sentiments being voiced today, in the United States and worldwide. And while we have the ability to transmit images that witness, describe, and protest our current environment around the world in a flash, our methods and image culture today seem anemic in comparison. The work and experiences of hundreds of people adorn these pages, some known names, most not, but in looking at these 50+ year-old images I see an level of urgency, ambition, and even hope that seems mostly missing today. While the traveling exhibition ended this past April, the book is worth continued reexamination, and offers an opportunity to reflect, to be inspired by, and hopefully to learn from another place and time.
THE IMAGE ITSELF IS NOT AN IDEA. IT CANNOT ATTAIN THE TOTALITY OF A CONCEPT, NOR CAN IT BE A COMMUTATIVE SIGN LIKE A WORD. ITS IRREVERSIBLE MATERIALITY – A REALITY THAT HAS BEEN DETACHED BY THE CAMERA – EXISTS IN A WORLD OPPOSITE THAT OF LANGUAGE, AND BECAUSE OF THIS IT SOMETIMES PROVOKES THE WORLD OF LANGUAGE AND CONCEPTS. (text on front and back endpapers of Provoke)
Lauren Greenwald iss an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of South Carolina.
She lives and works in Columbia, SC.