Thought Provoking

Lying on my floor at the moment is a thick tome with along its 44mm wide black spine has the single word ‘PROVOKE‘ in large white sans-serif caps, 30mm high. It weighs in at a tad over 2 kg (4lb 63/4 oz for those who like my wife still think in the old way) and a fair proportion of that must be the ink on its many black pages.

This is not a work for lovers of the fine zone system print, with most of its images being pretty stark black and white – and mainly black, but it is perhaps one of the more important photographic publications of recent months if not years. I wrote briefly about it and the show in Switzerland it accompanies a few weeks ago, and sat down to order it online as cheaply as possible from anyone except Amazon, and it arrived a few days later. Its actually available rather more cheaply from the US, but its weight makes carriage expensive and I bought it from a UK dealer.

Its on the floor mainly because I’ve run out of space on the many bookshelves in my home, and run out of space on the walls for more bookshelves. I have a kind of rule now, though I don’t always keep to it, that I only buy books with images by photographers I know, and this work just about squeezes into that category as I briefly met and got to know Eiko Hosoe back in 2005 in Poland – and took a number of pictures of him.

But its also there on the floor close to my computer to remind myself that I intended to write a review of it. I’ve picked it up – good exercise – and slowly leafed through some of its 680 pages several times in the last couple of weeks, but somehow that review has never materialised. But Jörg M. Colberg (who doubtless got a review copy rather earlier than my order arrived) has written a very fine one on  Conscientious Photography Magazine that makes my intended labour superfluous – and I commend it to you.

Provoke, a short-lived magazine, reproduced as one section of the book was part of a wider movement, a movement that started, as the first part of the book exemplifies (its full title Provoke – Between Protest and Performance is also a description of the volume’s layout) in the photography of post-war protest in Japan. Part of the reason for the high-contrast, grain and blur comes from the difficulties of covering these events, often at night or in poor light with a great amount of movement, requiring photographers working with 400 ASA or slower black and films to use lenses wide open and to push process them to extremes; but it was also an aesthetic that sat well with the Japanese tradition of calligraphy, and mirrored the extreme emotions of the moment. And Japanese art has a strongly graphic tradition which these images continue – as does the design of their publications.

The images were also a part of the protests, published often in the kind of crudely published leaflets and magazines that still often accompany protests, where cost is paramount and image quality goes by the board. Cheap litho or photocopying works best with images with few intermediate tones.

Colberg brings out the important discussion of the difference between a language and a style which this book makes clear, picking a particularly significant quote from an essay by Nakahira Takuma:

“William Klein’s work differs from that of [Henri] Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank in one key aspect: Klein thinks of photography as a method of searching and recognizing, as a plan for adventure in an endless world. Cartier-Bresson and Frank think of it as a means of direct expression of a specific view on the world or on life, such as the viewpoint are lonely and miserable.”

Both the book Provoke and Colberg’s review raise interesting issues, and issues of relevance to photographers now. As Colberg says, the Provoke photographers wanted photography to play an important role in society, and photographers today can learn from them by wanting to do more, by “doing something, by brushing against the grain, by making pictures that, at least to you, mean something” rather than “whining or whimpering, or by fighting over the tiny crumbs someone with a lot of money and/or power might throw at you“.


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