Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Whither Politics? Photography and Protest in the “Provoke Era”

When the photography exhibit Provoke: Photography in Japan between Protest and Performance, 1960-1975 began its tour of Europe and the United States in January of 2016, its relevance to the contemporary moment was unclear.[1] As scholar of Japanese photography Dan Abbe’s question, “Why Provoke, and why now?,” indicated, even specialists in the field were uncertain of why this limited-run photography magazine from the late 1960s was on a two-year tour.[2]  Today, the answer to that question seems given. When the exhibit opened at its final destination at the Art Institute of Chicago on January 28th, 2017, eight days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, what could seem more relevant than an exhibit on the relationship between photography and protest? Within the time-span of a single year, the significance of the exhibit went from “why now?” to feeling like “a call to arms,” as Lori Waxman described it.[3] Transformations in the world outside the walls of the museum transform how we perceive what hangs on the walls inside it.

Taki Kōji, photograph from Provoke 3, 1969.

The exhibit—a significant contribution to the past decade’s shows, catalogues, and retrospectives presenting the work of postwar Japanese artists—offers a broad perspective on the relationship between photography, political protest, and forms of performance in 1960s and 1970s Japan. It takes its title from the photography journal Provoke, which lasted for three issues between 1968 and 1969 and has now attained near-mythic status in the world of Japanese photography and the arts more broadly. Provoke was a coterie magazine that featured the photography and writings of its founders Taki Kōji, Nakahira Takuma, Okada Takahiko, and Takanishi Yutaka. The major postwar photographer Moriyama Daidō joined the group in the second issue. Provoke has become best known for its intense are-bure-boke (rough, blurred, out-of-focus) aesthetic, despite numerous photographs, the majority perhaps, that are more conventional in their composition. And it has gone on to become representative of an entire era, the so-called Provoke era, of politically minded avant-garde activity.

“Provoke”: Photography in Japan between Protest and Performance, 1960 – 1975. Art Institute of Chicago, photo by Chester Alamo-Costello.

The layout of the exhibit reflects how the curators sought to spatially display the network of activity within and related to the Provoke collective. It is split into two separate spaces: one displaying the three Provoke journals and the solo work of the Provoke photographers, the other displaying the work of artists and activists associated with them and the Provoke era more broadly: photographers like Hosoe Eikoh and Nobuyoshi Araki, artists like Enokura Kōji and Takamatsu Jirō, performance troupes like Hi Red Center and Tenjō Sajiki, and films by Ogawa Shinsuke and Terayama Shūji. Through these various figures and their work the exhibit invites viewers to consider questions central to the Japanese 1960s: what was the relationship between art and politics? What was the role of photography, specifically, in and as a form of protest and performance? 


The period when these photographers were working was one of the most tumultuous in postwar Japanese history. In the summer of 1960, millions of Japanese citizens filled the streets of Tokyo and other major cities to protest the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Protestors demonstrated outside of American military bases throughout the decade, students occupied universities in its latter half, and from the late 1960s well into the 1970s local farmers waged years of resistance against the building of the Narita airport in Chiba Prefecture. Many of these demonstrations resulted in violent clashes with the riot police.

Artist Unknown, Protest against the Construction of the Narita Airport, around 1969.

The curators of the exhibit set out to treat this turmoil not simply as the backdrop for artistic activity, but to show how the photographers used their medium as a form of engagement, as a means to challenge and critique the Japanese state, the dominant capitalist social order, aesthetic institutions, and the conventions of daily life. The exhibit effectively does this, in that it does not reduce the work presented merely to its aesthetics. Yet it fails to fully contextualize these photographers within their specific theoretical approaches to the medium, which reduces the politics of their work to a shared contrarian, disruptive attitude that materialized in the aesthetic experimentation and confrontational subject matter of the images on display.

The Provoke display is a case in point. The presentation of the Provoke journals is impressive as it allows viewers to experience all three of them in their entirety: each page has been photocopied and pinned to a wall allowing for concentrated engagement with each photograph and the layout of each journal as a whole. The compositional style is striking with photos sometimes running off the page onto the next, multiple photos printed on a single page, and abrupt shifts in the stylistic composition of the photographs themselves. A sequence of blurry photographs creates a sense of movement only to be disrupted by well-framed, static images of urban space, advertisements, or everyday commodities. One gets the sense, from the cheap paper on which the journals were reproduced, that these journals were meant to be held, consumed, and discarded; not, ironically, displayed as prints in an exhibition. The curators are clearly aware of this contradiction and have nicely incorporated it into the exhibition. However, the theoretical underpinnings of these photographs, which appear in essays in the journals, get lost in the focus on the photographs themselves. This might seem like a contradictory or unfair critique to level at a photography exhibit: that it is too focused on photography. 

“Provoke”: Photography in Japan between Protest and Performance, 1960–1975. Art Institute of Chicago, photo by Chester Alamo-Costello.

Nevertheless, in order to understand these photographs and not reduce them to a political attitude, to understand the very questions about the relationship between photography and politics informing the exhibit, one must read and interpret at least some of the theory. The curators do present the first paragraph of the Provoke manifesto—“The image itself is not an idea.  It cannot attain the totality of a concept, nor can it be a communicative 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.”[4] Without explication or further contextualization, these lines could read like a pseudo-philosophical polemic meant to lend an air of theoretical importance to an amateur photographic practice. But this would be a misinterpretation.

Intensive theoretical approaches, expressed in articles published in Provoke and other journals of the time, defined the photographic practice of the Provoke photographers and distinguished them from some of the other photographers presented in the exhibit, a fact not adequately explained. One could easily mistake the Provoke manifesto as defining much of the work in the exhibit, when in fact it only defined the work of a few of the Provoke photographers for two of the three issues at most. Most of the Provoke photographers, in fact, were not first and foremost photographers. The two founding partners, Taki Kōji and Nakahira Takuma, were theorists before they were photographers. Taki had not published any photographs and Nakahira only a few by the time they started the journal.  Takanishi was the only professional photographer, and Okada was a poet. Photography, for these thinkers and artists, was a means to put into practice an evolving theoretical agenda for using the technological medium of the camera to transform human perception and consciousness.

Takanishi Yutaka, Towards the City in Provoke 1, 1968.

Indeed, the Provoke collective sought to develop a form of photographic praxis—a unity of theory and aesthetic practice—that could be used to challenge and expose the workings of a dominant capitalist ideology in late 1960s Japan. For these photographers, particularly Taki and Nakahira, the chief theorists of the group, state and capitalist interests had come to pervade every aspect of daily life in postwar Japan. Everything from urban and rural spaces to language and human consciousness had become co-opted and structured according to a concealed exploitative ideology that appeared obvious or natural. It was the role of socially conscious photography to expose the workings of this “invisible” ideological domination by “provoking” or “detonating” the visual and linguistic signifying conventions ordering everyday life.

Drawing on a range of thinkers from Roland Barthes to Kevin Lynch, C. Wright Mills and Walter Benjamin, the Provoke photographers theorized a form of photography that, although related to language, could not be reduced to a fixed, ideologically inflected sign. It could produce, in its ambiguous materiality as a photograph, the possibility for new forms of thought—thus the subtitle to the journal, “provocative material for the sake of thought.” The task of the photographer, then, was to employ a photographic process that could expose the workings of ideology while not reproducing that ideology and its deterministic logic. This involved rethinking the function of the photographic image and the role of the photographer in the photographic process.

Taki Kōji, photograph from Provoke 2, 1969.

The external world, they argued, was inherently opaque, obscured by the systems of power ordering it. The photographic image, however, could expose these systems by cutting up that world into fragments. Creating these fragments involved employing a method that could accidentally capture something beyond what the photographer intended or saw. And this method required the photographer to surrender his subjectivity, his creative agency, to the technological apparatus of the camera and produce an image that passed through, negated, and went beyond the will of the photographer himself.[5] The are-bure-boke images are performances of this method in their rejection of subjective expression and the evidentiary value of the image. The still images of obvious urban spaces and consumer goods are attempts to unselfconsciously capture an accidental fragment of reality that could reveal the ideological power embedded in the landscapes of daily life. These photographs reflected these photographers’ understanding of how power structures human subjectivity, and they are traces of their performative attempts to subvert that power with their cameras. 

Takanishi Yutaka, photograph from Provoke 3, 1969.

The politics of Provoke inhered in this attempt to create images that challenged ideology and altered the signifying conventions structuring perception and consciousness. Yet most of this thought informing the aesthetics of the photographs in Provoke is, unfortunately, absent from the exhibit. This leaves one wondering what, exactly, was the relationship between these photographs and politics. The politics of these photographs and photographers was clearly not realized in direct confrontation to state power or in representing and mediating the formation of communities. As Taki himself wrote at the end of Provoke 1, “When we say Provoke, it does not mean a political provocation. Politics is clearly among the areas our images can provoke. But our provocation aims beyond and beneath politics, at the sphere of negation.”[6] Provoke would end in conflict over this very question about the relationship between photography and the political. In late 1969, Taki altered his approach and began to experiment with photographic duplication as a means of subverting the dominant signifying practices of conventional photography. At the same time, Nakahira began to see their work as too far removed from politics as it was occurring in the streets. Although not incompatible, these two positions led to the end of Provoke and of the relationship between Taki and Nakahira.

The photographic work in the exhibition space adjoining the one devoted to Provoke presents photography that was engaged more directly with forms of performance, protest, and protest as performance. Upon entering this space one is confronted with the artist Nakanishi Natsuyuki’s life-size nude images of himself, Akasegawa Gempei, and Izumi Tatsu (all three members of the avant-garde collective Hi-Red Center) rendered on a scroll of blueprint paper. This massive print was famously unrolled and presented as a defense exhibit in the 1966 trial over the “Thousand Yen Note Incident” when Akasegawa was charged with counterfeiting money for partially reproducing elements of a Japanese one thousand yen bill on invitations to a solo exhibit. [7] Around Nakanishi’s print are photographs of performances staged as protest and of actual large-scale protests against the Japanese state and American militarism. The exhibition includes Murai Tokuji’s images of the 1962 “Yamanote Line Incident” when a number of artists boarded the busy loop line in Tokyo and performed a happening to disrupt the ordinary flow of the commute; Takanashi Yutaka’s photos of the butoh dancer Hijikata Tatsumi performing in the streets of Tokyo; and Hosoe Eikoh and Hijikata’s collaborative work Kamaitachi, published in 1969 as a photo book, in which Hosoe photographed Hijikata spontaneously interacting with local villagers and the landscape in the Tohoku region of Northern Japan as “kamaitachi,” a weasel-like demon who haunts and steals children (Hijikata supposedly was chased off by some parents for actually accosting some children).

Murai Tokuji, Documentation of Nakanishi Natsuyuki with a Compact Object (1962) during the Yamanote Line Incident.
Hoseo Eikō, Kamaitachi #17, 1965.

Complementing, or in tension with these photos is a selection of about ten protest photography books, printed between 1960 and 1975. These types of books, of which close to eighty may have been produced at the time, varied greatly in their style and production.  Professional photographers, student groups, and trade unionists produced, with these books, photographic documentation of their involvement in protests, strikes, and large-scale social movements. These activists’ use of photography to represent and provoke direct action in the streets differentiates these books from much of the material presented in the exhibit; yet they are still linked to the work of the Provoke photographers and other artists in their challenge to domination in its various manifestations. The myriad photographers and images on display, the exhibit seems to suggest, converge on this point: a common use of the medium to oppose and critique the power structures of the 1960s. But this presentation of photography, performance, and protest obscures the important differences between the individuals and groups on display and their approaches to the political potential of the photographic medium. Without proper context, which the exhibit does not provide, the sheer diversity of approaches that artists and activist took with their cameras to theorize, capture, and transform the dominant social order of the time gets lost, and the exhibit renders the politics of photography from this moment a form of mere aesthetic disruption.

Hayama Hiroshi, Ikai to kanashimi no kiroku (A Record of Anger and Sadness), Kawade Shobō, Tokyo, 1960.

The contingencies of history might have made this exhibit come to seem transparently relevant to the current political climate. In January 2017, disrupting the systems and ideas that led to the election of Donald Trump may have seemed necessary. But we must still ask Abbe’s question, “Why Provoke, and why now?” for it asks us to consider the politics of exhibiting political art at the same time as we seek to understand the politics of that art in its historical moment. The first sentence of the catalogue to the exhibit offers a self-consciously ironic answer: “Western interest in Japanese photography has been running high in recent years.”[8] This comment opens a discussion in which the curators distinguish this exhibit from recent ones on Japanese photography. This exhibit, they explain, focuses on the relationship between a variety of artists and political activism while others have focused on single artists or objects and treated the “‘troubled times’” of the 1960s and 1970s simply as a backdrop. Provoke the exhibit is meant to be a corrective to how Japanese photography has been presented in recent years. And perhaps it is. Yet, the impetus for the exhibition appears to differ little from those it is meant to correct. Like the others, it appeals to the “Western interest in Japanese photography,” albeit through a different organizing logic. To answer Abbe’s question, a continuing “Western” desire to view avant-garde and political art from Japan, or to view Japanese avant-garde art as political, appears to be why Provoke went on tour in 2016.

In 2016, one could have expected that this exhibit might have taken some inspiration from the political and artistic activity of the contemporary moment. The relationship between art and politics, arguably, has not been more relevant since the 1960s, but the exhibit fails to make this connection. The Japanese government’s inept handling of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown on March 11, 2011 led to massive protests in the streets of Tokyo and has since provoked an eruption of activity in performance and activist art, film, literature, and photography. Even the photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, whose representative work from the Provoke era is on display in the exhibit,, has produced some of the most harrowing and radical work of his career in photographs like those in the series Diary of a Photo-Mad Old Man (2011) that seek to represent the presence of the imperceptible, of nuclear radiation.

Nobuyoshi Araki, Untitled from the series Shakyō rōjin nikki (Diary of a Photo Mad Old Man), 2011.

And political issues like the presence of the American military in Okinawa—which is presented in the protest photography books on display—are still focal points of protest.

Documenting and displaying how artists used their mediums in their historical moments for political purposes, as this exhibit seeks to do, is absolutely necessary. But it is also necessary to properly contextualize that art, lest it become inaccessible, misunderstood, or reduced to a mere disposition. And it is also necessary to inquire into the assumptions informing the exhibition of political art. These assumptions may reveal, even more than the art itself, how historical power relations continue to operate, hidden in plain sight, in the guise of dissent.


[1] Provoke: Photography in Japan between Protest and Performance, 1960-1975. January 29, 2016–April 30, 2017. The exhibit was on display at Albertina, Vienna; Fotomuseum, Winterthur; LeBal, Paris; and the Art Institute of Chicago.

[2] Dan Abbe, “Does ‘Provoke’ still push back today?,” The Japan Times, August 20, 2016.

[3] Lori Waxman, “Art Institute exhibit ‘Provoke’ makes past protest feel present,” Chicago Tribune, March 1, 2017.

[4] This paragraph is printed on the description accompanying Provoke 1 in the exhibit. Portions of it are also printed at various points in the Provoke section. Miryam Sas provides a full and more accurate translation of this paragraph in her chapter on Provoke in her book Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan. It reads: “Images in themselves are not thought. They cannot have the completeness of concepts, nor are they signs that can be exchanged [communicatively], like words. However, their non-exchangeable, non-communicative materiality—the reality [genjitsu] that is cut out by means of the camera—is on the underside of the world of words, and therefore at times they can incite [shokuhatsu; touch off, detonate] the world of words and concepts.” Miryam Sas, Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011), 184.

[5] For studies of the theories informing the Provoke photographers, see: Sas, Experimental Arts; Philip Charrier, “Taki Kōji, Provoke, and the Structuralist Turn in Japanese Image Theory, 1967-70,” History of Photography, 41:1, 25-43; and Yuko Fujii, “Photography As Process: A Study of the Japanese Photography Journal Provoke,” Ph.D. diss., City University of New York, 2012.

[6] Quoted in Sas, Experimental Arts, 185-6.

[7] William Marotti, Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

[8] PROVOKE: Between PROTEST and PERFORMANCE: Photography in Japan 1960/1975, ed. Diane Dufour and Matthew Witkovsky (Göttigen: Steidl, 2016), 16.