Provoke: Between Protest and Performance, reviewed by Robert Dunn

If you love Japanese photography, as I do, the new book Provoke: Between Protest and Performance is essential—and a godsend. The thick, black tome is many things: a catalogue with copious reproductions of pages from pre-Provoke protest books, the actual works that make up the Provoke canon, and important works that followed in the Provoke spirit; useful essays (read: rarely pretentious academic twaddle); numerous historical documents translated into English for the first time; and current interviews with some of the major players such as Daido Moriyama and the late Takuma Nakahira. (Quick note: Shomei Tomatsu’s shots from 1975 capturing Daido being transformed from a hipster kid to a geisha are worth the full price of admission.)

The best news is that the book’s component parts are in ideal proportions. You can pick up Provoke simply as you might one of Jeffrey Ladd’s fine Errata: Books on Books series; as a way to actually look at books you’ll never see anywhere else. (At a recent show on Provoke-era photography at the Japan Center in NYC there were numerous great books, but all under lock and key in vitrines.) Here those books live.

The next best news is that you’ll learn much about the Provoke era. It’s the editors’ contention that Provoke itself followed from a flurry of black-and-white photobooks produced to commemorate and inspire further protests in the streets of Tokyo. As the introduction has it: “The present volume treats photography in Japan of the 1960s as a pivot between protest and performance, politics and art.” The key word seems to be pivot, where disruptions and excitations in the culture fed—and were fed by—photography. (One fascinating tidbit: If you’re shooting political demonstrations, it seems wise to blur your photos so none of the participants can be hauled into court and your photos used to prosecute them—hence a damn good practical reason to come up with a “rough, blurred, and out of focus” aesthetic.)

I came of age at the same time as Provoke, though in Berkeley, Calif., where I went to university (and got tear-gassed in the streets). I actually remember the ’60s fairly well (and, as the joke has it, I was there), and I know that protests in the street went hand in hand with eruptions in the culture. That’s the thesis of the book at hand—that politics and culture were one big stew—and that made me think of the first time I met Daido.

I’m standing before the master, and spontaneously I burst out, “I think you’re the Bob Dylan of photography.”

What did I mean? Not all that sure then, but after reading the book before us, I see how through Dylan’s genius the political impulses that founded his career (Blowing in the Wind, Masters of War) inexorably moved his poetic vision to rough, blurry, out of focus songs such as Visions of Johanna and Desolation Row—in effect, allowing 1960s political revolution to inspire, even demand, a revolution in consciousness.

Dylan has said many times that he was never that political, and in their interviews in Provoke, Daido and his cohorts say much the same. Makes sense. The job of the artist, at least in those years, was to bring forth visions and worlds theretofore unknown. From Provoke 1 (before Daido’s contributions): “We as photographers must capture with our own eyes fragments of reality that can no longer be grasped through existing language.” How thrilling that in Japan, when language breaks down, the form the culture finds to reimagine itself is … the photobook.

And that essential thrill is what makes Provoke: Between Protest and Performance such a great work. Big props to Steidl for logically and vividly laying the book out, and its usual exemplary reproduction of some of the best and most important photographs ever. Big thanks to the editors who put the photographs first, then let us know so much of what was going on in the world around them. And of course thanks to Daido, Nakahira, Tomatsu, Kazuo Kitai, Eiko Hosoe, Nobuyoshi Araki (who intriguingly wanted to join Provoke but couldn’t, and still feels “torn and jealous”), and all the other photographers who, as with Dylan, changed not just the world of their art but the consciousness of the world at large.

Provoke: Between Protest and Performance can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info here). In Fall 2016, Dunn will teach a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.

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