2018 marked the 50th anniversary of the original publication of photography focused, Provoke magazine. In November of last year, the independent Tokyo-based bookshop and publisher Nitesha reissued all three magazines of the rare publication into one eye-opening compendium. Portraying post-war Japan and the country’s socioeconomic tribulations of the 1960s unlike any other photographic journal; Provoke established a legendary reputation amongst Japanese photography fans for its historical and aesthetic insight.
“When talking about Japanese photography books Provoke is one of the noticeable achievements,” says Nitesha’s co-founder Amanda Ling-Ning Lo. Originally published in 1968, the magazine is a “dojin-shi” meaning self-published magazine in Japanese. The original prints have become very expensive as a result of their rarity, “we have to showcase it with an acrylic case because it is so rare, but visitors are highly curious about Provoke’s contents." As a result, Nitesha decided to reprint the photographic journal, giving light to the historically-significant images that record the despairing gloom of post-war Japan.
In the time of Provoke’s creation during the 1960s, social upheavals were taking place around the world. While Japan attempts to recover from the desolation of two of its cities shattered by atomic bombs, over in America Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while South East Asia was also conflicted in a destructive war that will last for decades to come. Importantly, Provoke masterfully offers an accurate glimpse into this dark time in history. Out of focus and grainy, the photographs were “initially ridiculed as are-bure-boke” a Japanese term which refers to the aesthetic zeitgeist of the era; literally meaning “rough, blurred and out-of-focus.”
Today, the style of “are-bure-boke” is recognised for its haunting poignancy. In Provoke, the viewer can feel the nationwide sense of anguish that faced its citizens. The photographs of the ghostlike civilians are darkly powerful and provide a leaden narrative around the quest for survival. By contrast, Provoke seems to entirely conflict our modern understanding of Japan as a futuristic place filled with wonderfully absurd objects, dollops of quirk and pioneering technology. So not only is this photographic journal a beautifully designed object and an important artefact of the are-bure-boke era, but it also serves as a lasting reminder to the horrors that were inflicted upon Japan’s innocent communities as a result of two atomic bombs.
The new reprint includes English and Chinese translations of the essays and poems that are featured alongside the black and white photographs. In the third issue of the original Provoke, the photographer Yutaka Takanashi photographs models during a fashion show. However, Amanda explains how he “ingeniously turns beauty into something uncertain-looking, even something terrifying that seems contrary to the idea of beauty.” In an essay Yutaka writes for Provoke’s first issue in 1968, he also conveys his creative process with emphatic poeticism: “I roll the natural colour film forward, trigger the sun as the strobe, and the two-month long calendar shoot ends. It is as if we were experiencing the seasons in advance. I fix my consciousness, which has been flitting between the tasks of avoiding the overhead electric cables, and framing out empty discarded Coca-Cola cans. Civilian’s four seasons.”
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