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This will be the first in short series of posts about Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s. I got it off Amazon a few months back, and it is my favorite photobook. My photo bible, I return to it often because it is a constant source of inspiration. It’s the variety of styles and formats that really gets me excited. Open to a random page and you’ll get documentary photography about a snowy rural village in a northern prefecture (Hiroshi Hamaya’s Snow Land). Flip a few pages and you’ll find grotesque images of the aftermath of the atomic bomb (Kikuji Kawada’s The Map). These next few posts will be about the books, people, styles, and themes in Japanese photography that have left the biggest impressions in my mind. I’ll use the book as a jumping off point and move on to other photographers, performers, or artists as the connections come to me. The whole affair will be more of an introduction/opinion piece than anything, as I’m not up to the standard of academic writing on these subjects and am just too damn lazy to do extensive research! Enjoy!

Takuma Nakahira, Daido Moriyama, PROVOKE

If you are a self-styled street photographer like myself, or have more than a passing interest in the history of photography, you probably don’t need to be introduced to Daido Moriyama. If you do need an introduction, go go go!

I started to hear a lot about this guy about two years ago. I looked at his photos, bought the book, and went through my own Daido phase. Then I dug a bit further. Turned out that Daido’s style, while striking, wasn’t so much revolutionary as evolutionary. As all artists, he built on what preceded him, hung out with contemporaries whose work resembled his own, and was later a source of inspiration to those who took his style further.

One of his compatriots was Takuma Nakahira. Unlike Daido, who spent much of his early career walking the streets taking pictures, Nakahira was more of an essayist, constructing the critical supports that would eventually become the PROVOKE era. His ’60s and ’70s photographs, like Moriyama’s, are ominous city scenes punctuated by blurry male and female subjects, often partially nude.

In fact, this style was the bread and butter of PROVOKE, the subject of the final introduction paragraph I’ll write. PROVOKE was a short-lived photography magazine whose goal, according to Nakahira, was to challenge, rebel against, and ultimately break conventional photography. A photography that could transcend the written word, something utterly different from photojournalism. It featured Nakahira, Moriyama, as well as Yutaka Takanashi, Takahiko Okada, and Kōji Taki. The mag, which published only three issues, was hugely influential, which I suppose is why people can say “the PROVOKE era” unironically. Three other books connected with the style came later. They are Moriyama’s Farewell Photography, Nakahira’s For a Language to Come, and Yutaka Takanashi’s Towards the City. All of them are featured in Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s.

The style of this convention-defying photography came to be known as “are, bure, boke”, or rough, blurred, and out of focus. As this new, provocative way of taking photos came to be more defined it must have seemed to Nakahira, the most radical, academic, and vocal of the PROVOKE contributors, that the jaws of convention were closing around it. He left the high-key, striking images behind, never to return. Not so with Daido Moriyama, whose modern work, while different from his older work, still exhibits the characteristics of “are bure boke”.

The style of “are, bure, boke” is said to mirror the shock and alienation of the Japanese post-war transition. I won’t delve too deeply into that, as other bloggers have covered it better than I ever could. Do your own research, bah!

Instead, let’s talk about the offspring of “are, bure, boke”. As I said before, I went through a Daido phase, taking high-key pictures on black and white film. Billboards, ominous people shots, toys, blurred faces, creepy signs, dead fish, you name it. I think a lot of people have. Some never leave.

The way I see it though, PROVOKE is a tried and true style now. It doesn’t have the revolutionary connotations it used to, and doesn’t really fit so well into a historical narrative.

I take that back. Maybe it does. The increasing alienation of American life, the lurking, empty dark side of the flora and fauna of city streets and department stores, technological detachment, whatever. All good and relevant. But the problem is that it’s been done before. Taking high-key, grainy, blurry, and dark shots all the time is less of a shocking statement and more just another dress you can put on in post-processing. Which is just fine. I like wearing that dress (I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay).

But these days I’m getting tired of it. It’s played out in my mind. My new digital camera even has an art filter that mimics the style. I see a lot of good photos dressed up in “are bure boke”, but many more that are banal and say nothing if it weren’t for the rugged, rough look of a Daido-filter. Good modern “are bure boke” can be an homage, a blending of established form with captivating subject, and downright jaw-dropping. Bad “are bure boke” is the photographic equivalent of a tribal tattoo.

I see that this post has managed to end just as crotchety as the last. Next time I will talk about Eikoh Hosoe, Yukio Mishima, and Butoh. From the vague outline I have, the next article will be more links, more history, less opinion, and less crotch.

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