It’s been almost three years since I unboxed Provoke, and I just finished reading all the text. It sat on the side table next to where I stare blankly at the television night after night, sometimes covered by some other book undergoing one of my casual reviews, sometimes by whatever recent-ish issue of Aperture that I probably didn’t read, sometimes taunting me, most often completely mute. A strip of color negative leader slowly, imperceptibly, glacially, moved from top to bottom, front to back, and every time it caught my attention, I felt a small twinge of shame that sometimes led to a flurry of study, but most often got shunted off to wherever such feelings go.
Is it that dense, that full of mind boggling information and history? Am I just lazy?
Well, Provoke is an exhibition catalog, a massive one, put together by editors Diane Dufour and Matthew S. Witkovsky, with help from Duncan Forbes and Walter Moser and many others, from an exhibition of the same name at Albertina, Fotomuseum Winterthur, and Le Bal in 2016, and the Art Institute of Chicago in 2017. The exhibition and book take as their starting point the wildly influential and oft-mentioned three-issue Provoke zine from Koji Taki, Takuma Nakihara, Yutaka Takanashi, and Takahiko Okada, and, for the last two issues, Daido Moriyama, and situates the magazine, and its aesthetic, in a larger network of Japanese image making in the 1960s and early 70s.
The book is organized into three sections: “Protest,” with excerpts from protest zines and photobooks, and translations of revolutionary texts; “Provoke,” with scans of the three issues—the reason I bought the book initially—and related works, with translations of the, well, largely revolutionary photo/theory texts; and “Performance” with images from happenings and documentation of various performances, as well as writings on performance and photography, perhaps somewhat less revolutionary than the texts in the previous sections as the authors and practitioners aged and became more famous. As far as time periods go, the sections overlap and contradict the ordering of the book: many of the things in the “Performance” section are from 1965 or so; roughly a 1/3 of the “Protest” works are from the early 1970s. But from an aesthetic standpoint, from the ways photographers and theorists talked about Provoke (and the related ways of making and thinking about photography the group promoted), it sits rather neatly between the protest zines and performance documentation.
Clocking in at almost 700 pages (or ~650 if you exclude the section of biographies, list of plates, list of works in the exhibition but omitted from publication, table of contents, and bibliography, all of which are worth at least glancing at), Provoke is a massive tome, and not easy to just pick up and read. Sure, it’s bound very well and lays nearly flat without breaking the spine or anything, and I’m not quite as weak as I look, but it is dense. The translated texts of the revolutionary documents are typical of the era and read much like Debord or Vaneigem or even Deleuze, so I did, and do, often have to read things a couple of times to get it, and then I forget whatever “it” was because I put the book down for 3 or 4 months.
That said, revolutionary writing and philosophy from 50-60 years ago, while continually fascinating to me, seems somehow irrelevant to me at more than 40 years old. I probably won’t read The Society of the Spectacle or The Revolution of Everyday Life again, again, though I sometimes fantasize about taking a month or two off to just sit and read mid-Century revolutionary theory again. I wish it was more relevant to me day-to-day than it is, but then I’m 20 years older than the authors of most of those texts, and most of the texts in Provoke. I’m not a university student any more, no longer quite so full of piss and vinegar, as they say. I’m also not a professor or historian or someone who might have a professional interest in the Provoke texts. It all tickles the punk rock, anarcho-syndicalist part of me, for sure, but then I have to go back to work, out to mow the lawn, clean the toilet or whatever.* And I’ve never been much more than an armchair revolutionary on my best days anyway, so…
But I digress. I didn’t buy Provoke for the the texts, though if I would read them, I mean really read them, not just glance at while simultaneously watching that season of Bake Off with Kim Joy again or another one of those really quite excellent Dutch detective shows my wife and I enjoy so much, I might get something out of them. But, as mentioned above, and for better or worse I’ve moved on from that. Anyway. When I bought it, I guess I was aware that there were some period texts and all in it, that it was more than just the magazine, but I bought it, after searching for months and balking at the ludicrous prices, for the scans of the three issues of the magazine. Everything else was kinda also-ran. So imagine my disappointment when I found that most of the 3 issues are presented 2 spreads to a page, or 4 spreads to a spread. It’s easy enough to view, I suppose, and the images were never meant to be hifi at all anyway, and Steidl’s print quality is beyond reproach, but I’m glad to have enough interest in the rest of the material to keep the book sitting next to me, even going unread for much of the time, for more than two years.
Beyond the issues of ‘Provoke’ magazine, there are excerpts of dozens of other books, zines, and pamphlets, and the photography runs a similar gamut to what’s seen in the magazine: it’s all black & white, of course, but beyond the gritty, blurry stuff (aure bure boke) that the movement championed, there are evocative landscapes, documentation of performances, Xerox copies and halftones, and what might be called social documentary throughout, and, well, the magazine had pretty much all of that too. Shomei Tomatsu features prominently, with excerpts from and full scans of several zines and books from his Chewing Gum and Chocolate series on American occupation, and his later, more art-centered work, like his series of pictures featuring a hip young Daido Moriyama slowly transforming into a geisha that Robert Dunn, in his review for PhotoEditions.co.uk calls “worth the full price of admission.” Tomatsu loomed large in the Provoke group as a sort of older brother, who used many of the techniques and advocated for many of the stances that the Provoke group took in their short run as a magazine and publishing house, and that would become a set of strategies and techniques the members and their followers continue to use today. And what Provoke does is to situate the grainy blur among not only the situation in Japan at the time, but to place it right among the worldwide shift in thought that took place when my parents were half my age, though none of the authors really give that much more than a passing mention, if I recall…
And that’s the problem with me reviewing Provoke. I just didn’t give it the sustained attention it deserves. The same is probably true for most of the books I review. Between the original texts and the contemporary essays written for the book, there is easily a full semester graduate level photo or art history course or two, and I gave it about as much attention as one might give a daily newspaper, and I really don’t feel qualified to say much more.
For some perhaps better reviews, check out Adam Bell in PhotoEye or Robert Dunn in PhotoEditions or the exhibition announcement/review at LensCulture. They all have more to say, and better, than I do.
Provoke: Between Protest and Performance—Photography in Japan 1960/1975 is available only on the secondary market these days. “New” copies can be found for as little as ~$160 (ignore the BiggerBooks and eCampus listings on BookFinder: they both list Amazon’s price and if you buy from them, they’ll attempt to buy from Amazon, fail, and after 8 or 10 weeks return your money), and used copies run about the same. If you have interest in mid-Century Japanese Photography, I’m not sure you could do better, really. Provoke is really one of the more comprehensive exhibition catalogs that I’ve ever come across, and it’s worth your time and attention, if you have the interest. I wish I did.
*I’m reminded of a song, here, and it makes me sad. Today, the day this post went live, is/was Election Day in the United States. My general level of hope, interest, creativity, passion, etc. etc. etc. has been on a steady decline since the last presidential election, and while I know a President probably doesn’t have much to do with me personally, I hope the next four years sees me picking it up again, whatever “it” is.