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

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.