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Tokyo Reimagined

As Japan’s capital transformed, Yutaka Takanashi deployed a radical style to picture urban change.

By Tsuyoshi Ito

Yutaka Takanashi, from the series Tokyo-jin (Tokyoites), 1965 © the artist and courtesy MOMAT and DNPartcom

Yutaka Takanashi, from the series Tokyo-jin (Tokyoites), 1965
© the artist and courtesy MOMAT and DNPartcom

Yutaka Takanashi had been a successful commercial photographer for seven years before cofounding the magazine Provoke in 1968. All the while, he had been re-imagining Tokyo with his moody black-and-white photographs, which are famously grainy and angular. His novel approach, encapsulated in the series entitled Otsukaresama (1964), won Takanashi the prestigious Japan Photo Critics Association Newcomer’s Award and, soon after, drew him into the orbit of other (now iconic) photographers, like Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira. Tsuyoshi Ito of A/fixed spoke with Takanashi about his photographic circle in the late-1960s and his pursuit of photography’s potential.

Tsuyoshi Ito: What made you want to join Provoke?

Yutaka Takanashi: Takuma Nakahira invited me because I appreciated and pursued different approaches to photography. I found Provoke’s rebellious attitude interesting. Before Provoke, I perceived older photography as very redundant; there was hardly any creativity to it. Even most of my contemporaries were conservative.

Yutaka Takanashi, Shibuya-ku: Hachikō Square, April 25 1965, from the series Tokyo-jin (Tokyoites), 1965 © the artist and courtesy MOMAT and DNPartcom

Yutaka Takanashi, Shibuya-ku: Hachikō Square, April 25, 1965 from the series Tokyo-jin (Tokyoites)
© the artist and courtesy MOMAT and DNPartcom

Ito: Moriyama joined the Provoke group for the second and third issue. How did this impact your work? How was working with Nakahira and Moriyama? Had you hoped for a fourth volume?

Takanashi: I thought it was fine that we disbanded. We had explored the range of photographs we wanted to, so to make a fourth volume seemed unnecessary. I continued my friendship with Nakahira, and visited him when he was ill and hospitalized. I was drawn to Nakahira not as a photographer, but as a person. He questioned and challenged things constantly. I didn’t know much about the other members, but because Nakahira was there I decided to join. I didn’t know much about Moriyama, I just heard that someone was stirring up trouble. I thought his photography was pretentious. We weren’t close.

Ito: So, how did you select images for the Provoke volumes?

Takanashi: Koji Taki was in charge of the edits because he was the most organized. I just approved what was presented to me. There were no huge arguments about which photographs to include.

Yutaka Takanashi, from the series Toshi-e, (Towards the City), 1969 © the artist and courtesy MOMAT and DNPartcom

Yutaka Takanashi, from the series Toshi-e, (Towards the City), 1969
© the artist and courtesy MOMAT and DNPartcom

Ito: In the latter half of the 1960s, strikes and protests were on the rise, from student movements to the Narita airport protests. Were you drawn to such themes?  

Takanashi: I didn’t have much affiliation with the student strikes. Political or historical scenes were not on my agenda; I just photographed because I liked photography. I was most political when I would go out to dinner and comment on how rowdy it was outside.

Ito: I heard that, when it was first published, Provoke did not sell many copies.

Takanashi: It did not matter whether or not Provoke sold well. My friend from high school was an heir to a publishing company and they helped out with the publications.

Yutaka Takanashi, from the series Toshi-e, (Towards the City), ca. 1970 © the artist and courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery Photography/Film

Yutaka Takanashi, from the series Toshi-e, (Towards the City), ca. 1970
© the artist and courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery Photography/Film

Ito: How do you feel about the attention Provoke is receiving today? After quitting Provoke, did you feel as if you were ending an era or simply beginning a new one?

Takanashi: Provoke was truly a revolutionary point for Japanese photography. Although I took it seriously, I still don’t think it was what triggered a revolution. The reason why Provoke was so interesting was because the photographers were so different from one another. The only thing that tied us together was the fact that we were all doing something completely new. But I have always wanted to do new things. I never really changed. Provoke just gave me the opportunity to showcase my ideology.

Ito: Following the breakup of Provoke, your next big landmark was Toshi-e, or Toward the City (1974)—a lionized series about Tokyo, considered to be the last great project of the Provoke era. Why did you want to publish Toshi-e?

Takanashi: I wanted to get Towards the City published because it was boring to just leave the project as disconnected photographs. I think publishing work is more important than gallery shows. I feel more comfortable going through publications, rather than showcasing something as an original, which I find unsettling. I am not very involved with the gallery installation of my work; I just give the okay to proceed with the project. I’ve never felt like I was handing off my child or anything like that. It’s probably because I’m from Tokyo, so it’s easier for me to let go of things.

Tsuyoshi Ito is founder and managing editor of A/fixed, a leading resource on the history of Japanese photography.

A/fixed’s inaugural publication, Provoke Generation: Japanese Photography, ’60s-’70s is now available.

 

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