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Rough, Blurred, and Out of Focus

The years following World War II were ones of great upheaval and social unrest, and few countries underwent such drastic change as Japan. With many of its major cities destroyed during the war, Japan’s rebuilding process coincided with expansive economic growth, prosperity, and an increasingly Western cultural influence. In response to Japan’s rapid modernization, postwar youth rebelled against many of the country’s traditional ways of thinking and sought new forms of expression. Rough, Blurred, and Out of Focus: Provoke Magazine and Postwar Japanese Photography offers an introduction to this tumultuous time from the perspective of the disaffected youth who lived through it.

While an older generation of photographers returned to the popular objective style of photojournalism (as seen in the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson), young photographers sought a new aesthetic philosophy to document their changing world. This new generation used photography as a means of expression, not documentation, and considered the individual behind the camera as important as that which was being photographed.

Beginning in 1959 with the formation of the VIVO cooperative, photographers like Shōmei Tōmatsu, Ikkō Narahara, and Eikoh Hosoe forged a new style characterized by wild experimentation, ambiguity, and unsettling, often confrontational subject matter. The movement continued in the late 60s and 1970s with the short-lived Provoke Magazine and such photographers as Takuma Nakahira, Yutaka Takanashi, and Daidō Moriyama. Provoke’s distinctive style was described as are, bure, boke (“rough, blurry, and out of focus”). The rough graininess of the images came from deliberate printing techniques, while the blurry, out-of-focus qualities were a facet of the photographers’ expressionistic approach.

Rough, Blurred, and Out of Focus: Provoke Magazine and Postwar Japanese Photography is on display until February 27 in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries*. The photographs that impressed me most include:

Ikkō Narahara’s depiction of a Trappist monk running through a monastery

Yutaka Takanashi’s otherworldly behind-the-scenes photo of fashion models who, as the wall text aptly puts its, look “like an invasion of Mod spacemen”

Eikoh Hosoe‘s strange picture of a man’s arm wrapped around a seemingly disembodied woman's head

A bride’s ecstatic expression, captured by Fukase Mishima

* Please note that this exhibition is closed on Saturdays and Sundays.

Image: Detail from image 4 in Volume 1, Provoke, 1968.