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