Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama (b. 1938) may be among the most influential Japanese artists of his time. As a founding member of Provoke, the radical collective that published just three issues of a groundbreaking magazine by the same name between 1968–70, Moriyama embraced a decidedly devil-may-care, punk sensibility that transgressed, subverted, and revolutionised photography forever.

The members of Provoke understood that the photography was not merely “worth a thousand words”—it was a language all its own. Recognising that the medium could “provoke” new ideas and meanings, they sought to expand the formal possibilities of the form by blurring the line between the abstract and the representational. They challenged the camera’s slippery relationship between fiction and fact by pushing the documentary impulse to the extreme, adopting a spontaneous and confrontational approach to reality to circumvent conscious awareness to explore the paradoxes of seeing and being.

Embracing the are, bure, boke (rough, blurry, and out of focus) style, Provoke broke free from convention in their search for beauty at its most sublime, uncovering the intense, shocking power of existence hiding in plain sight. Eschewing the lush greyscale of Ansel Adams’ landmark zone system, Moriyama and his comrades stripped the photograph down to its most essential state, one that was raw, gritty, and pure light, shadow, and shape. Although Provoke was not the first group of artists to explore this iconoclastic approach, their efforts had the greatest impact on photography as time progressed.

He set about photographing the world not as it was but as he saw it – a confused, chaotic and fragmented reality. There is a furious urgency to the pictures he took between 1968 and 1972: black and white photographs of everything and nothing, of underground kabuki actors and other avant garde artists and performers, erotic scenes, portraits of animals and street life, photographs of photographs, and of TV screens and newspaper headlines – precursors to screenshots and reels.

Moriyama’s photographs have become a testament of a tumultuous time in Japan, conveying a sense of the grim and gritty reality of the underbelly of the city in grainy images. Many of these images were originally shot as photo essays for magazines – it was the golden age of the Tokyo publishing industry, and magazines were museums for photography as it became a new artistic form. The pictures were later printed again, sometimes at different scales, reshuffled and reordered, and compiled into the photobooks Moriyama is famous for – such as his acclaimed work, A Hunter, shot from the window of a car as Moriyama hitchhiked around Japan.

A less familiar, groundbreaking series of work of Moriyama’s is a monthly column: Accidents, produced throughout 1969 for a mass media publication. Each series took on a different aspect of photography and its exploitation by the mass media – a poster of a car crash designed to shock and scare; photographs of TV screens and newspapers in Japan in the week after JFK’s assassination. It shows Moriyama’s concern with the ethics of photography and its exploitative nature. But questioning the purpose of photography so deeply led him down a dark road. In 1972 Moriyama published “Farewell Photography”, a swan song to his chosen medium, a mashup of old negatives, scraps and prints gathered from his archives and thrown together. Photography, Moriyama realised, wasn’t going to change the world as he had once believed.

He spent his life asking a basic, fundamental question: What is photography?. He never answered that question, but his life’s work is a constant and honest response to that. Moriyama has done far more than take pictures. He has pushed the form to its limits, interrogating what photographs are, how they are experienced, their ethics and effect. He is also behind some of the most iconic and influential pictures of the last 50 years – from closeups of fishnet stockings to portraits of stray dogs, they are regarded as lyrical, symbolic expressions of the postwar era in Japan.