Archive, Documentary, Exhibitions

Between Protest and Performance – Unseen Photographs of Japan’s 60s New Wave

Photography from the Japanese photo magazine Provoke, which ran for three issues in 1968 and 1969 and captured a new Japan emerging from the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is on display for the first time. 

Japan’s most influential photographers – including Daidō Moriyama, Yutaka Takanashi, Shōmei Tōmatsu, and Nobuyoshi Araki – are shown together for the first time in Provoke, a new exhibition at The Vienna-based Albertina museum, which explores the significance of the short-lived and revered magazine of the same name.

Seen from today, Provoke is an expression of the massive social turbulence in Japan’s recent history, a country uniquely scarred by the Second World War, and in the throes of creating a new national identity.

The 200 works on show therefore represent an expression of this political transformation and new ways of using photography as a form of protest; to express, or even inspire, such fundamental change.

In the 1960s, Japan started to see the first great wave of protests against renewal of diplomatic ties with the USA, to the illegal actions of large corporations and the despotism of the neoliberal Japanese state.

As the protest movements intensified, so a series of photographers, with the ability to publish their work, began to emerge.

As well as expressing the social unrest of their generation, these photographers were also reacting against the image culture of Japanese life.

They saw the visuals around them as part of a mass media used to promote an increasingly consumerist society. They saw the media as having lost all relation to reality, only concerning itself with presenting a virtual reality.

Front and centre of this movement was the magazine Provoke.

The makers of Provoke – critic Kōji Taki, author Takuma Nakahira, critic and photographer Takuma Nakahira, and photographers Yutaka Takanashi and Daidō Moriyama – were of the opinion that journalistic photography had exhausted itself and it was impossible to effect long-term change through direct political action.

Provoke featured strikingly innovative graphic design, with images laid out in sequence, pithy text and image combinations, and the interplay of materials chosen for their cheapness – rough paper, low-resolution printing – with fold-outs and unusual formats.

The Albertina’s exhibition examines the way Japanese photography was used to document, and inspire, forms of live action and protest. At the forefront of this movement were Daidō Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira, and Nobuyoshi Araki.

The three issues of Provoke were printed in small editions of only one thousand copies each. Takuma Nakahira, Yutaka Takanashi, Kōji Taki, and Takahiko Okada founded the magazine, while Daidō Moriyama joined the group with the magazine’s second issue.

The photographers of Provoke worked independently and spontaneously, often photographing without looking through the viewfinder of their small-format cameras, and processing their images in self-created darkrooms. This made for a rough, grainy, and blurred pictorial language, influenced by Ed van der Elsken and William Klein.

Contrary to the objectives of the traditional documentary photography, Provoke’s photographers were interested in expressing a subjective experience of Japan’s postwar reality.

This was encapsulated by the manifesto published in the first issue of Provoke, which defined photography as an autonomous medium independent of spoken language and aimed at “provoking” thoughts and ideas. The title of the magazine  – Provoke: Provocative Materials for Thought – expresses this intention.

Here, we profile some of the key individuals behind the creation of Provoke:

Shōmei Tōmatsu (1930–2012)

Shōmei Tōmatsu photographed the sociopolitical changes in Japan from the 1950s on, depicting US military bases, the consequences of dropping a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, and the student protests in a new, symbolic documentary style.

The pictures’ subjective approach revolutionized traditional documentary and reportage photography in Japan at the time.

Tōmatsu also supported the Provoke photographers as an exhibition organizer and editor. Together with Takuma Nakahira and Kōji Taki, he prepared the first major exhibition of Japanese photography in 1968.

Takuma Nakahira (1938–2015) | For a Language to Come

Nakahira, a photographer and photography critic, was responsible for the discursive orientation of Provoke. Nakahira’s works also rejected the rules of photojournalism.

Nakahira did not regard the photograph as a photographer’s means of expression, rather a mechanical document of his subjective perception.

This relationship between photography and his own, unique language is evident in his book For a Language to Come, first published in 1970. This volume assembles a non-linear and unhierarchical sequence of snapshots that evoke an imaginary, post-apocalyptic sceneries, revealing the photographer’s scepticism about the consumerist culture spreading throughout Japan.

Yutaka Takanashi (b. 1935) | Towards the City

From the mid-1960s, Yutaka Takanashi focused on the urban change of the metropolis. Tokyo’s massive expansion, the modernization of its infrastructure, and its ruthless industrialisation were captured in spontaneous pictures often shot from a driving car. Unlike his colleagues’ works, Takanashi’s photographs are easier to read, less pessimistic, and show a stronger affinity to classical documentary photography. He composed all his pictures by looking through the viewfinder.

In collaboration with the book designer Kōhei Sugiura, Takanashi published the artist book Toshi e (Towards the City). Embedded in a cardboard box, its two volumes comprise a number of different, partly overlapping work groups: while the smaller one, titled Tokyo-jin (Tokyoites) contains pictures of the city’s inhabitants from 1966, the larger one explores Tokyo’s new topography, documenting its outlying districts. Shot in the Provoke era, the pictures’ blurriness and apparent exposure mistakes testify to the group’s influence.

Daidō Moriyama (geb. 1938) | Accident

Daidō Moriyama’s series Accident interlinks sociopolitical subjects with references to Western art. Taking on Japan’s emergent consumerism, Moriyama borrowed from Andy Warhol’s pop art pictures to subvert everyday mass media.

Next to demonstrations and pop culture motifs, Moriyama, alluding to Warhol’s work Silver Car Crash of 1963, photographed police posters that campaigned for safe driving with deterrent pictures of car accidents.

By employing such techniques, groundbreaking at the time and in his context, Moriyama questions the illusionary nature of photography and underlines their material quality.

More information on the exhibition can be found here.