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Photography between actual and potential forms in Tokihiro Sato

Text by Stacy Oborn for Japan Exposures

Tokihiro Sato’s work may well be that which I am most drawn towards that I have never seen in person. Usually a devoted advocate of the book form especially in regards to photography, Sato is one of those rare photographers whose execution and installation are all part of a piece; he has a thorough and encompassing conception of his own work, and I get the increasing sense that what I might glean from a page is a vastly different experience than standing in front of an actual photograph.

That said, what I have seen on paper and screen remains strangely compelling.

The images seem at once that they are like a kind of landscape, but with a palatable difference. Shot with an 8×10 large format view camera, the detail and tonal range of each are total and exquisite, but what lulls a viewer into lingering in the scene are the evidential traces that Sato leaves with us that tell us he was there, even though we do not see anyone in these still and quiet frames. Sometimes these traces take the form of little orbs of light hovering above water, snow or land; sometimes they are endlessly repeated long, thin and snake-like lines drawing our gaze down — these “landscapes” are full of something that was both always there and also intentionally carefully placed for us to consider. In a photograph by Tokihiro Sato, we are asked to see not just what is there, but what else might be there as well.

Sato’s initial artistic training was in sculpture. His first brushes with photography were with the rote act of documenting his sculptural output. He began experimenting with his first large format long-exposures and light drawing in order to grant his sculptural pieces qualities that he felt were inherently lacking in the medium: a sense of life and the ability to remark on the element of time. Sato has frequently commented on his enthusiasm for process over finished form, and the results of these early experiments are what gave birth to his “Photo-Respiration” works that he has become known for.

Tokihiro Sato - Nikko #1

The term “photo respiration” derives from the actual human physical labor that is required to produce each finished image. Sato makes his photos in all kinds of spaces both rural and urban, and in the one to three hour exposure times he can be found to be walking, running, hiking, swimming, climbing, sweating (and definitely taking many breaths) between each interval required to record the impression of light on the film base. His process has been widely described in articles and online, and involves a combination of using mirrors to reflect sunlight back to the camera during daylight, and a flashlight hooked up to a battery pack or a penlight used for the nightshots. For the long exposures recorded during the day, Sato applies a darkening filter on his camera lens to prevent overexposure and to further allow himself a longer exposure time in which to navigate the terrain in whatever means necessary to fulfill the desired requirements of the photo. With exposure times of well over an hour any traces of the human element, or even the natural world in motion, become stillness and emptiness. People in a crowded intersection don’t become blurs, they simply Un-become, and waves in a seascape turn into a vague and hovering mist. In the snowy expanse of an image like Nikko 1 (2001, reproduced above), Sato ensured that the footsteps required to place the pinpoints of light would not become part of the exposure by placing himself in the back of the scene and working his way forward through the frame, so what we are left with is a snowy wood scene, a fallen tree and a seductive circlet of light with no hint of the footwork required to put them there.

With exposure times over an hour any traces of the human element the natural world in motion become stillness and emptiness. People don’t become blurs, they simply Un-become.

The result is an image that is about process, traces and visible contradictions. Elizabeth Siegel, photo curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, said it well in the forward to their exhibition catalog of Sato’s work that, “…these pictures reveal a relationship between matter and energy, stillness and movement, and actual forms and potential ones.” Drawn to places that he self-describes as “sculptural space,” Sato’s choice of location is wholly intuitive. He has said that he is drawn in particular to locations that “seem to emit tiny sparks… that give off the air of an age.” Thus we have volcanic seascapes, woods, industrial waterfronts and commercial warehouse spaces — places from which images are made that are both landscapes and strange kinds of invisible portraits.

While claims have been made that in his images everything from fairies to references to Nude Descending a Staircase can be seen, and keen efforts by Western curators to place Sato in the wider and more accessible arena of a Buddhist or generally East Asian inflected aesthetic, Sato himself resists categorizing himself as purely a photographer, sculptor, land, performance or conceptual artist. In an interview he has said, “I only photograph landscapes, certain objects, and light. The light becomes corporeal, while the traces of light that I create as I move embody passing time, creating a sculpture in time.” His exhibition installations are much more than photos in frames on a wall, and belie his sculptural training. Stephen Longmire, writing in Afterimage of the Art Institute show in 2005, describes the work:

His large black and white images, nearly 40 x 50 inches each, are printed on a translucent material that is stretched with springs over grids of round fluorescent tubes, which mimic his own bursts of light. The results are sculptural, hearkening back to the artist’s beginnings in that three-dimensional medium. They remind viewers that photographs are, after all, objects, just as their making is an experience-one usually left outside the picture.

It is this extra emphasis placed on intended viewing that gives me pause for regret that I have yet to see Sato’s work in person. In the United States he is represented both by the Todd Haines gallery in San Francisco (their website has a very nice tour of an installation of his show where one can see the suspended transparencies in situ), and by the Leslie Tonkonow Gallery in New York.

While I love the surreal and seductive serenity of the Photo-Respiration work, I find myself increasingly interested in the newer color work that Sato has been producing within the last several years. Tantalizing bits are shown in the representative gallery webpages, but very little has been written or reviewed about them to date. Apparently Sato has created what he calls a Wandering Camera Project (House) — a mobile camera obscura, and has been making these Very Different images with it. Viewing them in relation to the earlier black-and-white work is almost like watching a pendulum swing; the newer color work is every bit as chaotic and jarring as the Photo-Respiration work is still and approachable. Both projects are, to my estimation, imminently engaging.


Stacy ObornStacy Oborn is an American writer and photographer living in Berlin. Raised a military brat, she grew up all over the southeastern United States, and did her graduate work in photography in Chicago at both the Institute of Design and Columbia College. Stacy now works remotely as a web editor in Berlin, Germany, while her fiancée completes research work for his dissertation. She is the author of the website http://the-space-in-between.com.


Please also see Sato’s Cover Photo of the Brooklyn Bridge taken with a multi-pinhole camera, as well as our profile of Sato’s career. In our bookstore, we have used copies of Sato’s Photo-Respiration (1997 Japanese edition) for sale.

The multi-dimensional Tokihiro Sato

Tokihiro Sato was born in 1957 in Yamagata Prefecture. He graduated in 1983 with a MFA in sculpture from Tokyo National University of the Arts. He is well known in Japan and in the rest of the world for his exploration of making photographs of landscapes or common spaces using very long exposures. He proceeded to the construction of various kinds of cameras, including a multiple pinhole camera, and their installation in public or generally “vacant” spaces.
Sato Multi-Pinhole camera

Since 1999 he has been an associate professor in the Department of Inter Media Art at the Tokyo National University of the Arts (known also as “Geidai”).

Tokihiro Sato’s work has been exhibited extensively internationally, for example as part of the 1997 6th Havanna Art Biennale and the 9th Asian Art Biennale, Bangladesh (2-person show) in 1999. He is represented by Gallery GAN (Tokyo), Leslie Tonkonow (New York) and Haines Gallery (San Francisco). Solo exhibitions of his work have been held in various locations in Japan and abroad, such as the Sakata City Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Most recently he has been working on a project on the theme of relationships with others as well as since 2000 the Sightseeing Bus Camera Project, where lenses are mounted onto the side of a public sightseeing bus to project the passing scenery onto a screen mounted in the middle of the bus.

In 2005 a book entitled Photo-Respiration was published in English by the Art Institute of Chicago. However, a book with the same title containing a very similar spectrum of work was already published in Japan in 1997 by the Nikkor Club*.

Tokihiro Sato - Shirakami #10, 2008

The Photo-Respiration series is Sato’s most well known work. When we approached him with our request for a cover photo, we were delighted to learn that he has been continuing to work on the series up until now, as the above 2008 image Shirakami #1 illustrates. Photo-respiration consists of two sub-streams, Breathing Light and Breathing Shadows. To make these photographs, Sato opens up the lens on his 8 x 10 camera for an extended exposure, sometimes up to three hours, and subsequently physically enters the scene in front of the frame. In Breathing Shadows a flashlight is pointed at the camera at nighttime or in a darkened space. In Breathing Light he uses a mirror to reflect light back toward the lens by day. In both cases he then moves around in the scene adding streaks or spots of light to the image. Ironically a long exposure of a person becomes a photo without anyone in it, but the viewer infers the person’s presence from the resulting image.

The title Photo-Respiration was chosen, according to Sato, because in the photographs he makes “a direct connection between my breath and the act of tracing out the light.” In his view this has the same significance as in monotonous activities such as long distance running or swimming, when one’s focus is only on breathing. The fact that Sato accommodates the three-dimensional real world by tracing it through his person into the image is often attributed to his training as a sculptor, although naturally the concept of dimensional collapse is part of the medium and a consideration for every photographer.

The resulting photographs have a very timeless and lyrical feel about them and this impression persists even after learning about the technique that was used to create them. In fact, knowing the method of creation adds to the enjoyment of the work. As always, it is the viewer who makes the image once more when facing it and doing so is a delightful moment. Interpretation is tempting, but one should be careful not to jump to quick associations. In an Q&A session, Sato was once asked what the reflections of light “represented” to him: perhaps fireflies, or marching pieces of string? His response was that representation is not his intention. All they represent is where he stood shining the light into the camera.

Tokihiro Sato Triangle-Square-Pentagon The Camera in UbeEven though we refer to Tokihiro Sato here as a photographer, it might be more accurate to speak of a visual artist who is appropriating the medium of photography. The Wandering Camera, for example, demonstrates a strong resemblance to an art installation or a performance which even includes an immediate feedback loop to the audience. Lastly, his award-winning contribution to the 20th Exhibition of Contemporary Japanese Sculpture 2003 is a camera-esque steel sculpture that reflects the outside world on the inside, showing that this artist is more than comfortable to move between the media he chooses to work in.


Please also see Sato’s Cover Photo of the Brooklyn Bridge taken with a multi-pinhole camera, as well as a feature by Stacy Oborn on Sato.


*We have used copies of Sato’s 1997 book, Photo-Respiration, for sale in the bookstore.

Tokihiro Sato – Brooklyn Bridge (Gleaning Light Series)

Tokihiro Sato was born in 1957 in Yamagata Prefecture. He graduated in 1983 with a MFA in sculpture from Tokyo National University of the Arts. He is well known in Japan and in the rest of the world for his exploration of making photographs of landscapes or common spaces using very long exposures. He proceeded to the construction of various kinds of cameras, including a multiple pinhole camera, and their installation in public or generally “vacant” spaces.
Sato Multi-Pinhole camera
The above photograph of Brooklyn Bridge in New York from his Gleaning Light series (more examples here, see the last three colour images) was taken in 2005 with a multi-pinhole camera (follow the link for more images of the camera).

Since 1999 he has been an associate professor in the Department of Inter Media Art at the Tokyo National University of the Arts (known also as “Geidai”).


We have used copies of Sato’s 1997 book, Photo-Respiration, for sale in the bookstore.