architecture, people, Tokyo

coded/uncoded Japanese photography

February 25, 2024

My research indicated an upsurge of interest in, a return to, a looking back on, and revaluation of the post-war Japanese photography, especially those of the urban landscape associated with Taki Kōji and the other members of the Provoke group (Daido Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira, Takahiko Okada, Yutaka Takanashi, and Koji Taki). Japan in the late 1960s was a developing society that was 10-15 years prior to the emergence of the image-media society with its constantly transforming network of image information. Provoke directly challenged the subject-centred tradition of reportorial or documentary photography in Japan.This revaluation highlights how Provoke had transformed post-war Japanese photography with its theoretical writing, making and processing photographs, graphic design and printing.

The revaluation interpretation highlights Taki Kōji in 1967–68 publishing a series of articles that introduced structuralism (pre-1970 Roland Barthes) into Japanese image discourse. This established the basis for Provoke’s theoretically informed practice of producing  raw, accidental codeless images that would reveal sub-semiotic realities— ie., reveal things beyond the capitalist-structured coded environment that are not visible to the naked eye. This particular style would avoid co-optation by the forces of consumer commodification.

The conceptual importance of Japanese postwar photography is interpreted in terms of Provoke rejected conventional reportage, the illustrative role of photography and naïve realism; constructed a synthesis of experimental avant-garde and documentary practice as a useful method of social critique; and stripping their images of readable codes by deliberately ‘mishandling’ their cameras. The conceptual aspect underpined a new photographic style of shakiness and blurriness and rough grainy images (“are bure boke”)– akin to the New York photos of William Klein — that aimed to criticize the assumptions of the rapid-growth-era capitalism and its pursuit of progress on the Japanese landscape in 1970.

The Provoke period ended in the mid-1970s when  the arebureboke style was appropriated by the commercial advertising by in Japan Railways’ to promote their Discover Japan campaign. Today Daido Moriyama is still the flaneur wandering the streets of Tokyo photographing in colour with a digital camera making disjointed and fragmented images of the urban spaces of Shinjuku.

There are two reasons for my referencing this history of postwar Japanese photography. Firstly, it is less concerned with the individual image as such as it is more about the series: it’s about groups of images; it’s about the book; one that it is made in collaboration with excellent book designers. Each image within the series is at once a detail of the overall work, and part of a larger material resource that might be drawn on again at a later date. Masahisa Fukase  continued this way of working.

Secondly is Koji Taki’s idea of an uncoded photography designed to be critical of the coded signs of the urbanscape with its consumer/capitalist meanings, and which challenges the  existing realist notions of photography and the role of a photographer. The concept  kankyō refers to the conventional photographic imagery that is dominated and transformed by the broader ideological environment state and capitalist interests enjoyed hegemonic control over all public forms of material culture in Japan. A critical uncoded photography could unveil this false reality through pictures in the gaps of conventional reality and people’s preconceived ideas. These are stripped down, uncoded pictures of chance moments or accidents function are subversive in that they both evade the misleading or illusory dominant culture and exceed what the photographer saw.

The problem here is that Barthes’ very influential semiotic idea of analogue photography in Image, Music Text which he contrasts to drawing, is a binary opposition of denotation (uncoded) and connotation (coded ideology ) with the priority of denotation over connotation. This is misleading. The uncoded, denotated message in photography is a myth since what the machine made photograph denotes or depicts is not a copy ie., the photograph is a mirror of reality. Photographs are influenced by their objects (ie., have an indexical relation to the object), and what we are seeing in the image bears a resemblance (iconical) to that which is depicted. This relation is culturally coded as photography, like drawing, requires training, has certain rules of transposition from a three dimensional object into two dimensional one and has a style. The photographic gaze is a constructed way of seeing.

Franz Prichard, Residual Futures: The Urban Ecologies of Literary and Visual Media of 1960s and 1970s Japan, Columbia University Press, New York, 2019.

Philip Charrier, ‘Taki Kōji, Provoke, and the Structuralist Turn in Japanese Image Theory’, 1967-70, History of Photography 41(1), pp.25-43.

Philip Charrier, The Quest for ‘True’ Photographic Realism in Post-War Japan, Japan Forum, 32(1), pp. 56-82.

Philip Charrier, The Making of a Hunter: Moriyama Daidō 19661972, History of Photography, Volume 34(3), 2010,  pp. 268-290. 

Yuko Fujii,  Photography as Process: A Study of the Japanese Photography Journal Provoke, University of New York, New York, 2012.

Myriam Sas,  Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan. Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2011. 

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