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Daido moriyama photography, japanese photography provoke, street photography
Daido Moriyama ©

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After World War II, Japan was defeated, humiliated and invaded by the American Empire. Traditional Japanese society gave way to free trade and modern, westernized life. While Japan proclaimed itself an economic superpower during the 1960s, generational and social inequalities and a sense of alienation and rootlessness among the youth became increasingly apparent. More than a few artists took the pulse of this new reality and revolutionized the evolution of art in Japan. Among them were some photographers who had suffered the devastating consequences of the war and became politically aware of these events.

Photographers Takuma Nakahira, Shomei Tomatsu and Yutaka Takanashi, poet Takahiko Okada, and art critic Koji Taki founded the magazine Provoke, which captured the period of social unrest in 1968 -a key year in the recent history of the student revolutions- through subversive representations and in contrast to the idea of the photographic image that had been held up to that time. 'Are, Bure, Boké', translated: grainy, blurry and out of focus. An apparently improvised style, outside of all norms and logical patterns for shooting and framing: they adjusted without using the viewfinder and created unbalanced compositions with which they managed to recreate a certain aesthetic.

Brave, intuitive and driven by a kind of instinct, these photographers did not seek to communicate information with their images, but rather to convey the energy and atmosphere of the streets, people and landscapes of the Japan in which they lived. The image spoke for itself through a rabid subjectivity: 'Today, when words have lost their material basis - that is, their reality - and seem suspended in the air, a photographer's eye can capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is. He can process these images as documents to be considered along with language and ideology. This is why, reckless as it may seem, Provoke has the subtitle 'incendiary documentation for new thought'1. The photograph was only a fragment, a portion of uncontrollable and haphazard reality founded on the error and imperfection of the image.

Street photography lessons

Only three issues of the magazine were published in 1968 and 1969 in small print runs, and the group disbanded in early 1970. However, this experience allowed the photographers to search for their own style and to publish their own books in the years to come, books that would be fundamental pieces in the history of photography and would evoke the transcendence of the Provoke movement: For a Language to Come (Takuma Nakahira), Bye Bye Photography (Daido Moriyama) and Toshi-e - Towards the City (Yutaka Takanashi).

Takuma Nakahira probably best reflected the spirit of Provoke in his photographs. His photography shied away from convention and relied on almost unconscious elements to push his images to the edge of recognizability. The camera captured the immediate reality but transfigured it into something new, the fruit of ideas rooted in his head.

Moriyama, who collaborated with the magazine in the second and third issues, revealed in each of his images the dark side of urban life: from illuminated billboards to the grim streets of the Shinjuku region, the place where he learned the photographic technique from Shomei Tomatsu, and where, dressed with cheap, compact cameras (cameras that, as he declares, he has never bought, since he borrows them from his friends) he found among its avenues, alleys and passages the rawness of the human figure housed in an unhealthy but disturbingly real atmosphere.

street photography in Hong Kong

For his part Takanashi portrayed the city of Tokyo and its inhabitants. After joining Provoke he quickly sought his own style not as unbalanced and haphazard as that promulgated by the magazine. With his photographs he showed the celerity of the new Japan and the isolation to which it had subjected individuals. A photography whose landscapes were close to the feelings provoked by Edward Hopper's paintings: the loneliness in the looks, the isolated bodies and the stolen gestures of objects and beings invisible to the society of the moment.

The three of them, together with Takahiko Okada and Koji Taki, thought about images, relearned how to see and taught us a new look; they directed their own consciousness to give each image a privileged place, and in doing so, changed the course of modern photography.

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