The Japanese photography of the Provoke era has always held fascination for me, as I love the directness and spontaneity. And Daido Moriyama is a prolific artist with much to say, either through his earlier work or his current activities.
The Tate offers a summary of Provoke, although I find it rather more descriptive than analytic.
Following the decimation and rebuilding of Japanese society after the Second World War, photography played an important part in a new self-definition of Japanese visual style, set apart from Western influences.
Provoke was a magazine with only three issues in the late 1960s, but its influence continued into the 1970s and 80s. It set itself apart from the photojournalistic style of the day, looking for a more subjective voice and validation of the person behind the camera. The images are often grainy and disorderly, reflecting the social and political upheavals taking place across the nation. It also constrasted with the glossy imagery of commercial magazines.
Takuma Nakahira and Yutaka Takanashi were founding members of the Provoke group. Daido Moriyama joined a little later, bringing with him his early influences of Cartier-Bresson, but with a desire to be a witness with more self-expressive intent.
Provoke was a protest – both about the political conditions in Japan and against the way photography was being developed into some kind of well-orchestrated art form. It was meant to set people thinking, and address reality directly. Nakahira was influenced by Sartre and Marx. Both Moriyama and Nakahira were fond of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.
From the Provoke Manifesto, Issue 1:
‘Visual images are not ideological themselves. They cannot represent the totality of an idea, nor are they interchangeable like words. However, their irreversible materiality – fragments of reality snapped by the camera – belongs to the obverse side of the world of language. photographic images, therefore, often unexpectedly provoke language and ideas. Thus ethical photographic language can transcend itself and become an idea, resulting in a new language and new meanings.
Today, when words are torn from their material base – in other words, their reality – and seem suspended in space – a photographer’s eye can capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is. He can submit those images as documents to supplement language and ideology. This is why, brash as it may seem, Provoke has the subtitle, ‘provocative materials for thought.’
Koji Taki, Takuma Nakahira, Takahiko Okada, and Yutaka Takanashi (Parr and Badger, 2004: 270).
Gerry Badger recently noted that:
‘The grain-and-blur offhandedness of the Provoke style was an attempt to get close to Atget, to produce a kind of automatic photography, drained of individual expression. But for many the Provoke ‘aesthetic’ was quite the opposite. It was a naturally expressive style, and furthermore, one redolent of the frenetic pace of contemporary Japanese metropolitan – that is, Tokyo life. Nakahira was chagrined when grain-and-blur became synonymous with the Provoke ‘style’, the house-style, even, of 70s Japanese photography as a whole. He was even more dismayed when Provoke’s radical, iconoclastic, politically charged ‘language’ was happily adopted by Tokyo’s advertising agencies and pressed into the service of the enemy – consumer capitalism’.
Moriyama’s Farewell Photography was first published in 1972, and a copy today can run to thousands of dollars. The original included a conversation with Takuma Nakahira, at the Hilltop Hotel in Tokyo, August 2nd 1971.
There was a second edition of Farewell Photography published in 2006.
In 2019 a third limited edition was published, in a slipcase and with an explanatory booklet which includes the Moriyama-Nakahira conversation in English. It also includes, for the first time, an index of all of the photographs, and an explanatory note about each one written by Moriyama.
In the conversation with Nakahira, Moriyama notes that Farewell Photography is about his vision of reality. Are news photographs more directly ‘real’ than planned attempts at image making? Is capturing random images created elsewhere also ‘real’ – taken ‘automatically’ rather than through careful photographic thinking and organising of a scene?
‘In essence, it’s about reality – the reality of Niépce and the reality of newspaper photographs – as two opposite points. The former, Niépce’s reality, questions the act of capturing people’s and objects’ likeness – something that resonates very strongly with me. And newspaper photographs, rather than being mere images-as-information or photos with historical significance, are rich with a certain directness concerning the act of seeing and being seen. I thought make a book based on that line of thinking. Have the book be composed of indiscriminate photographs of other people’s photos or of the TV screen, or torn up negatives of photos taken with an open shutter and so on. I’m thinking of the title “Farewell Photography.” It might seem like a somewhat ironic title, but it’s about my feelings of hate and wanting to say farewell to spiritually peaceful photographs, to photographs that show no doubt about what photography means, in other words photographs that lack all reality. Now I’ll just have to see if I can actually pull it off. Also, I’m someone who doesn’t really do as he says, so once the book is out you might find a lot of inconsistencies with what telling you. Actually, you’re quite likely to find them’.
Hate and Farewell
The hotel conversation
Farewell Photography is a mixture of images – some very personal to Moriyama (his entry into Provoke was a series of intimate photographs with a woman friend), some photographs taken in the street. Others are photographs of photographs – street accidents, to TV screenshots. Moriyama turned to news media after being influenced by the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy. And some are diaristic, portraying events in Tokyo and at or around the Provoke offices.
This latest edition publishes the 145 photographs at the original size and without retouching. The selection below includes the original page number, and Moriyama’s latest descriptive notes.
3. Tokyo, 1970.
A private photo of a girl in underwear. I didn’t wipe the negatives clean at all before making prints, and so the accumulated dust and dirt made it into the prints.
There is a lot of Moriyama’s early photography which is semi-autobiographical, yet he chooses a technique which is imprecise in date, place and subject, a theme he comes back to. It’s like taking a snapshot. There also is a lack or personal engagement and empathy, reflecting his views on photographic reality, discussed in this article.
Ironically, although at first glance the apparent randomness of Moriyama’s images which strikes a casual viewer, he is clearly still paying attention to angels, light and composition. Is this counter to his ideas about ‘reality’? Is he really playing against the camera and the apparatus, as Flusser would suggest?
23. Tokyo, 1969
I copied part of a traffic safety poster issued by the police. I think i took this one at the same time as a photograph that was published in ‘Asahi Camera’ (Accident <6> ‘Smash up’ / June 1969 issue / The Asahi Shimbun Company).
From the conversation with Nakahira, Moriyama states:
‘… there’s no other way than to keep shooting what’s around you every single day, day after day. I feel that what I mentioned in the beginning about shooting despite having lost motivation and the daily record you mentioned earlier are extremely similar to each other.
The naivety to think you could try and create masterpieces, that naive humanism to try and help people through your art – that’s just too optimistic for me. I’m already struggling just to keep grasp of my own existence. I’m busy focusing all my energy on myself. The world keeps revolving and collapsing without a single care about our motives anyway’.
Completely focused on oneself
28. Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 1969.
A contact sheet of photos I had taken in the Provoke office. they show a drunk woman that Takuma Nakahira had brought along one night. Students and other young people often came by Provoke office at night to drink and party.
45. Osaka City, Osaka, 1969.
Taken on the underground shopping centre in Umeda in Osaka. Published in ‘Asahi Journal’ (The Fifth Quadrant <7> ‘From the Ground to Eternity’ / February 15, 1970 issue / The Asahi Shimbun Company / First published in color).
The Moriyama – Nakahira conversation:
Yeah, it’s when any tiny thing pisses you off and nothing can please you. It goes from concrete things – people I’ve met or stuff that happened on the train or in the city – to more abstract things like the state of the earth or just the bad atmosphere where I happen to be standing. Vague things like that. Also, human relationships without any dignity, or the way society is organized. It all pisses me off. I said earlier that human existence is cruel. In the end it is the barbarity of being human and the triviality of life that pisses me off the most. There’s just this constant, faint feeling of dissatisfaction. And sometimes it comes out and jumps at me.
In search of a ‘probable whole’
61 Sibuya-ku, Tokyo, 1968.
A nude of a certain girl. This was not taken for Provoke.
Perhaps unknowingly, perhaps knowingly, but Moriyama’s nudes are reminiscent of Bill Brandt. But whilst Brandt uses crystal clear light and shade, around solid forms (and with artistic intent), Moriyama chooses to make those forms into a clearly photographic surface.
69. Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, 1969.
A pinball machine I photographed in a game center in Hibiya.
Another extract from the hotel conversation, which confirms that both photographers were looking broadly into the world to find their truths and inspirations. This was not some ‘internal’, insular approach to discovery. It was wide ranging.
When I’m traveling and there’s a museum in the town I’m staying, I’ll always go there, no matter what. I’m just visiting them out of interest, almost as a land of hobby. You really learn a lot in those museums, though. I can spend hours looking through the exhibits, and usually, in some small nook, there’s a corner with historical photographs from the town. They’re usually taken by a schoolteacher, a local rich guy or some bureaucrat. They’re very close to anonymous photography, and just extremely real.
“Anonymity” seems too strong here, the word sounds somewhat suspicious. I’d go with “the charm of the unknown author,” myself. I’ve had my name attached to the photobook I published, of course, but come to think of it, I could have left out that information as well. It would be nice that my photos entered into history as taken by an unknown author. Maybe that’s what “culture” is, though, in the end.
Yes. it’s exactly as you say. that is the culture I’ve been talking about for a while. For example, take Atget. Eugène Atget didn’t create culture, but the photographs that he took, they became culture, became history. That is the anonymity of photographs. The name Atget only emerged by chance, too.
The name Atget only emerged by chance, too. The same is true for his works. Utrillo bought his photos, and painted his images while he looked at the photographs. They were nothing but base material for a painter.
Photography by unknown authors
83. Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 1969.
A political poster entitled ‘The People’s funeral Protesting against the Murder Of Comrade Kasuya’, hung up in the Provoke office by either Koji Taki or Takuma Nakahira.
From the hotel conversation:
When I think ahead, when I think of the future, the first thing I see there is death. The thought of death doesn’t leave me at any moment of my life. I have to stress that fact. I don’t feel sentenced to die, or like a prisoner on death row. But it’s quite close to that. When I talked about something like this before, someone told me that my situation was completely different to that of a death row prisoner. Inside me I thought, “How dare you say that to me, you optimistic fool! This isn’t even related to worrying about traffic accidents or environmental pollution, or being worried about a war coming closer. It is much more vague. To borrow your words, it’s like a fragment, but a fragment that has lodged itself in the space between myself and the outer world.
This is the first time I’m admitting this to anyone, but the many forms and variations of death, the notional importance of death. This death, death, death, death’s image and horror are just paralyzing me at the moment. But then, there are moments like if I were to press the shutter button right now while chatting with you-where for an instant I am released from these ruminations. Those are truly beautiful moments. all those ideas about accidents and scandals I’ve worked on before, those all come from this background. When I’m enjoying a nice drink or see some cute children playing, anything like that right behind these small joys is, without fail, the thought of death. If is so unbearable. And so trying to create some space for myself where I am released from this torment, just for a little while. Some space where I can capture and enjoy these short moments. I feel like I am living and existing only for that sake.
In search of a ‘probable whole’
88. Tokyo, 1969/70.
A snapshot taken on the streets. The damage on the negative really stands out.
From the Moriyama – Nakahira conversation, elements of existentialism pervade the flow of ideas.
Camus posits that whether life is worth living or not is the only worthwhile question, and that this question is the only true concern of philosophy. There’s that line from his, “Whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference.” The true problem is – if our life is everything we have, then you can’t have any hopes that go beyond the life you live. Hope is something that transcends your life in the future ahead of you. That’s why as soon as you have hope, you begin to make light of your present circumstances. I think that is the same theme for photographers. A “theme” is something that transcends the “self,” isn’t it? To reject such transcendent stuff is, to exaggerate a little, the only standpoint available to us when we pick up our camera. In that sense, the camera is an incredibly effective tool, isn’t. That doesn’t mean I’m stating anything about society. It means the objectification of my very own lived life.
The process of life is one’s lifework
96. Meguro-ku, Tokyo, 1970.
Private photos with a girl in my workplace near Toritsu-Daigaku station.
As Philip Charrier commented (2017, Hunter):
‘Where Moriyama seems to have differed from the majority of his freelance photographer peers, and where one might most productively search for the origins of his aloof, ‘hunter’s eye’, is in his use of these assignments as opportunities to experiment with new and quite extreme expressive techniques and ideas; in his early discovery that photographic space could be simultaneously ‘documentary’ and ‘phantasmagoric’; and in his remarkable talent for reconfiguring images made on assignment into radical photobooks that, in their privileging of matters of individual style and vision over the particular human or social content, directly challenged the subject-centred tradition of reportorial or documentary photography in Japan’.
103. Tokyo, 1969.
Kenji Kanesaka also gave me several books with crime scene photographs.
Again, the Moriyama / Nakahira conversation:
I’m interested in Weegee’s photos, for example. He’s this accident photographer who’s always right there in the scene. His stuff is kind of interesting, though it’s not something I would want to do. His photos aren’t about expression or information or contemporary photography, they’re purely about the directness of the camera. Boom! He lights his flashgun in the dark. In his case, date and place really do matter. I feel like it’s okay, though. In the end, you don’t really have to be a it’s enough to be a camera-man, or a lens-man even. Another thing – and this is very literally about “dates” – is taking photographs for newspapers, every single day, for at least a year. In truth, until I die that’s all the photography work I’d love to do. But a newspaper is a land of public institution. They’re meant to be impartial, they’re meant to be clean. So it’s impossible for me.
Apart from that, well … rather than taking my own photographs,I’d actually like to publish the entire history of Japanese photography in a huge collection of twenty volumes or so. With actual photos from historical sites, images of the people actually affected by events and so on. It would be different to the photography history books that have been published so far. But doing that requires money and time. It’d be impossible without a benevolent and rich benefactor.
At any rate, as long as I live, anywhere I am will always be my “scene of action.” But then I’ve already stopped being able to take good pictures.
Weegee, photographer of scandals
113. Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 1969.
Published in ‘Weekly Playboy’ (Daido Moriyama’s Shocking Images – ‘Scandalous’ / October 13, 1970 issue / Shueisha – first published heavily cropped). The title at time of publication was ‘Wild Party’.
From the hotel conversation:
Artworks are an objectification of yourself. They are another form of alienation. They are not the same thing as the life I live. They’re residue that’s been extracted from my life. And if I didn’t do that, I couldn’t live. I’m sure there is some overlap with your “accidents” there.
The amazing thing about Warhol is that this applies to him, too. But he brought the art back into this whole thing. Take his “Jacqueline” for example. Jacqueline [Kennedy] only became famous to our generation by accident, basically, yet Warhol established her as a figure. Before her, there was the “Mona Lisa.” The Mona Lisa has been established as well; she is universally known, forever. And now there are “Jacqueline” and “Marilyn Monroe,” side by side with her.
I just the Warhol movie “Chelsea Girls” the other day, and that is the exact same. In his previous films, like “Empire” or “Sleep,” he is working with some kind of trick that just becomes the main subject of the film. Some kind of conceptual trick that works only once. Doing stuff like that might’ve been just fine at the time the were made, but Warhol just completely forgot about that kind of stuff and made “Chelsea Girls.” I find his fluidity, his irresponsibility truly amazing. It’s like you can’t even see the concepts in his works anymore.
The process of life is one’s artwork
125. Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, Unknown Date.
The nightly view from the restaurant ‘Alaska’ on the eighth floor of the former headquarters of Asahi newspapers.
140. Jiyügoaka, Meguro-ku, Tokyo, 1970.
Near my apartments in Jiyügoaka. Published in ‘Design’ (first published heavily cropped).
And here is my last extract from the hotel conversation with Nakahira.
So far, realism generally meant objective newspaper photographs – in other words photographs that had been taken close to the scene. A supremacy of locality, of you will. Or it meant extremely symbolic, schematic photographs that confuse a certain apparent condition with reality – in other words the kind of stuff that’s usually labeled “reportage.” All other photography is called artistic photography, of all things, and gets the label “subjective”photography.
When I said earlier that I didn’t understand Ken Domon after all, it is because he has not taken a single step away from that distinction. Also, when people talk about realism, they often mention the “heaviness” of reality. But there’s never any reality proposed other than a heavy one, and what and where and why it is heavy is never made clear. When they were saying what a tragedy Vietnam is, they didn’t see anything in their heads but a symbol of the tragic Vietnam. An illustration of a symbolized tragedy, really. And then they hallucinate that what they see in their heads is reality. But it’s nothing but a confusion of reality and its simulacrum. They are on the outside of reality all the time. Even their bodies.
And that’s why their photographs are, plain and simple, only representations. They are definitely not photographs. And then they have the gall to say that my photographs aren’t realism, that they are blurry, and out-of-focus, and contemporary. That’s why, my dear friend I think it might be best to clearly call my photographs realism already, and to call me a realist.
What it means to be contemporary
145. Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 1969.
I remember that this was a hotel in Shibuya. Published in ‘Asahi Camera’ (Accident <4> ‘Tokyo Through 1,000mm’ / April 1969 Issue / The Asahi Shimbun Company), then heavily cropped and flipped upside-down for ‘Farewell Photography’.
The hotel conversation
The photograph index
For anyone interested in the history of photography, its relationship with reality, and its reflections on society, I thoroughly recommend study of Provoke, and Moriyama in particular.
And the photographs are unique. There is no obvious editorial theme, yet the totality – and the sequencing – clearly show a committed flâneur at work. Moriyama has a shrewd eye both for the energy of a photograph, and how to open it to an audience.
BADGER, Gerry. 2019. Fire And Water – Takuma Nakahira’s For a Language to Come. Available at: http://www.gerrybadger.com/fire-and-water-takuma-nakahiras-for-a-language-to-come/ (accessed 21/01/2019).
CHARRIER, Philip. 2010. The Making of a Hunter: Moriyama Daidō 1966–1972. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03087290903361431 (accessed 09/08/2020).
CHARRIER, Philip. 2017. Taki Kōji, Provoke, and the Structuralist Turn in Japanese Image Theory, 1967–70. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03087298.2017.1292656 (accessed 09/08/2020).
CHARRIER, Philip. 2017. Nakahira Takuma’s ‘Why an Illustrated Botanical Dictionary?’ (1973) and the quest for ‘true’ photographic realism in post-war Japan. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09555803.2017.1368689 (accessed 09/08/2020).
DUFOUR, Diane & WITOVSKY, Matthew S. 2017. Provoke: Between Protest and Performance. Göttingen: Steidl.
LEDERMAN, Russet. 2012. Provoke: Takuma Nakahira and Yutaka Takanashi. Available at: https://monstersandmadonnas.blog/2012/08/24/provoke/ (accessed 19/01/2019).
MORIYAMA, Daido. 1972. Farewell Photography. 2019 Edition. Limited edition 551 / 1000. Tokyo: Bookshop M, Getsuyosha.
MORIYAMA, Daido. 2009. 1965 – 1970 Magazine Work. Tokyo: Getsuyosha.
MORIYAMA, Daido. 2010. The World Through My Eyes. Milan: Skira.
MORIYAMA, Daido. 2010. Memories of a Dog. Arizona: Nazraeli Press.
MORIYAMA, Daido. 2016. Daido Tokyo. New York: Thames & Hudson.
MORIYAMA, Daido. 2016. Record 32: Kobe. Tokyo: Akio Nagasawa.
MORIYAMA, Daido. 2017. Record. London: Thames & Hudson.
MORIYAMA, Daido. 2021. Orizuru. Tokyo: Akio Nagasawa.
MORIYAMA, Daido & NAKAMATO, Takeshi. 2010. How I Take Photographs. 2019 Edition. London: Laurence King.
NAKAHIRA, Takuma. 1970. For a Language to Come. 2010 Edition. Tokyo: Osiris.
NOONAN, Patrick. 2017. Whither Politics? Photography and Protest in the “Provoke Era”. Available at https://modernismmodernity.org/forums/posts/whither-politics (accessed 21/01/2109).
PARR, Martin & BADGER, Gerry. 2004. The Photobook: A History Volume I. London: Phaidon Press.
PRICHARD, Franz. 2015. Takuma Nakahira (1938-2015). Artforum, 21 December. Available at: https://www.artforum.com/passages/franz-prichard-on-takuma-nakahira-1938-2015-56902 (accessed 17/09/2019).
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