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What's this? Book review of Tokihiro Sato's photo book.

Photo-Respiration - 光―呼吸
Photos: SATO Tokihiro 佐藤時啓


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Reviewed on: July 20, 1999
Last modified:

Dreamy landscape photos which include points or lines of light created by the photographer.


Published: Oct. 15, 1997
Publisher: Bijutsu Shuppansha
ISBN: 4568120608
Price in Japan: ¥2,625
Qualities: Soft cover, color and B/W photos
Size: A4, 127 pp.
Language: Japanese and English
Sample photos: Image 1 | 2 | 3
Related reviews: None
Status: Available
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Impressions: The word "photography," which dates back to the 1830s, literally means writing with light. To most people today, it usually refers to the mechanical and chemical processes used to produce a photographic image. Tokihiro Sato has actually embraced both the literal and popular meanings of the word. Quite literally, he writes with light using a flashlight at night or a hand-held mirror (reflecting sunlight) during the day. Before you read on, perhaps you should see a few of his photos at the Web page so you know what I'm talking about.

As you can see, he photographs various landscapes such as the ocean, city streets, architecture, and open fields. You will also notice that the photographs are complemented with dots of light or doodling lines of light or wavy vertical lines of light.

Tokihiro SatoHe uses a large-format, 8x10 camera set on a sturdy tripod and sets a long exposure time (sometimes as long as 3 hours total). Then he goes into the scene within the camera's field of view and starts drawing with light. In daylight, he uses a hand-held mirror to reflect sunlight at the camera from various locations within the same scene. A reflective triangular frame is mounted around the camera lens so he can see whether the light is being accurately reflected at the camera. He counts to 10 each time he is reflecting the light to the camera. Then he moves (or swims) to the next spot. The result is dots of light scattered here and there in the photograph.

At night or inside a building, he uses a small flashlight to doodle with light. The dark ground or object is thereby covered with tangled lines of light. Sometimes, he draws wavy vertical lines of even length above stairs and other surfaces.

You can estimate the time it took to make the photograph by counting the number of dots of light and multiplying it by 10 sec. and then adding the moving time. As you can imagine, his photographs take a long time to create.

At night, his small flashlight is powered by a battery pack on his back. He doodles over the ground at specific intervals or blocks of space. After doodling over one block of space, he moves to the next one and doodles. It is a step by step process. He does not run around the whole place at random. It's very systematic. Even when he is drawing those wavy vertical lines (over a flight of stairs,etc.), he counts how many he has drawn over a specific distance. The results are quite dazzling since light itself is inherently so. It gives the landscape an extra dimension. At first glance, my imagination makes me think that the place is being invaded by invisible, floating, tentacled aliens from a scene in Star Trek. Or lost souls floating around as balls of light are haunting the place (especially when it's an abandoned or wrecked building).

However, it is not his intent to decorate the landscape with light. He uses the lights to show traces of his movements and the time and space where he existed. He uses a camera to record the relationship between himself and the objects and space in the scenes.

Sato got into photography rather late, in 1987 at age 30. His roots are in steel sculpture which he studied at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (nicknamed "Geidai" in Japanese). While a graduate student, he needed to photograph his sculpture. He then learned how to use a large-format camera for this purpose. As he photographed his sculpture, he realized that his pieces were unrelated to society and had an isolated existence. At the same time, he felt joy in taking pictures around town. Then he thought, why not try and link photography with his sculpture?

He started by asking himself the question, "What is this thing called life?" or "What does it mean to live?" He used various elements necessary for life, such as light and water, to create his three-dimensional works. Initially, he photographed his sculpture and complemented it with lines of light he drew with a small flashlight. (Those early experiments are shown on pages 116 and 117 in the book.) But he was not satisfied with the results and expanded the idea to include an entire lobby at the university instead and excluded his sculpture.

On page 11 (#21 on the page), the photo shows a B/W photo of a lobby and a flight of stairs. Numerous wavy vertical lines cover the floor and stairs in an orderly fashion. At this point, he effectively made photography his work of art instead of sculpture. The theme concerned space, with no people in it. However, the lines of light indicate that someone was there. This technique (which he admits can be done by anybody) enables him to create works on a much larger scale than with just sculpture.

Tokihiro SatoI met Sato on a Sunday afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama in Urawa where he was having an exhibition from June 22 to Aug. 8, 1999 (see photo on the right) . He gave a scheduled talk and tour of his exhibition to 40 to 50 people from the general public (most were young, and many were females). It was a fine exhibition and his anecdotes were interesting.

All the exhibited photographs (most of which are featured in this book) were black and white, and many were huge, measuring in meters. This is how he usually exhibits his photos. He wants people to see the details in the photos up close instead of just glancing at them.

The photos were displayed in a variety of ways. One set of huge, unframed photos were suspended a few inches away from the wall. It was to create a feeling of space. Another set of smaller photographs were illuminated from behind with round fluorescent lights. One huge, wall-size installation had two continuous photos suspended in front of a window through which daylight illuminated the photograph from behind. Then there was a dark room with three small holes in the blackened window. It was a camera obscura with the outside scene projected onto the opposite wall upside down.

The exhibition also had a projection room which showed a video of him creating one of his photographs. He was in the ocean wearing a wet suit and life jacket while carrying a mirror to reflect the sunlight to the camera lens. Over the water, the dots of light in the photograph had various shapes because it is hard to keep the mirror still while he is bobbing in the ocean or being hit by waves. Over the concrete wave breakers, however, the dots look much more round, usually with a starburst. He also has to be careful not to alarm people on shore that he is trying to send a distress signal with the mirror.

Another interesting shot was of the large pedestrian crossing in front of busy Shibuya Station in Tokyo. The huge crossing was dotted with white spots of light which got smaller at the farther distances. He said there were the usual masses of people and cars crossing the street, but they are invisible in the picture due to the long exposure. The street looks empty except for a ghostly car on the left (which had broke down and remained in place long enough to show up on the film). He does not usually use any assistants. But when necessary, he has someone watch over the camera while he is shining the light. Normally, people would think of him as some weird guy holding up a mirror. But in Shibuya, no one gave a hoot so it was easy for him. (The photo is shown on page 34 of the book and here on the page.)

Although most of his mirror photos show points of light, he also uses the mirror to create a thick line of light. The photo on page 37-38 shows a water canal in Tsukudajima with a small bridge in the distance. Right above the railing of the bridge is a bright white line he created by reflecting sunlight at the camera lens while moving very slowly across the bridge.

The photos in the book are divided into six different series. There are various landscapes taken in the countryside, in the city (Tokyo), on the seashore, and even outside Japan like Germany. Most of the photos are in B/W, but a few are in color. The color photos are also very nice. Apparenbtly he used a red flashlight which contrasted well with the eerie green of the scene. A lot of photos were taken in Tokyo's waterfront area at Odaiba and Ariake. (Which is delightful for me because I live in the neighborhood.) There are also photos of Yubari, the former coal-mining town in Hokkaido. When he draws with a flashlight, he draws in even blocks. He does not run around the whole place at random with a lit flashlight. He stops and draws one block. Then he goes to the next adjacent block and draws. It's very systematic. Even his wavy vertical lines are evenly spaced and he counts how many he has drawn per unit of space.

He also does not limit the images to a rectangular format. A few of the photos are round, revealing the camera's image circle. (It's not a fisheye lens.)

The book has a few foldout pages and the end of the book includes essays by critics and a roundtable discussion with Sato. There are also photos of him at work (holding up a mirror reflecting the sun), photos of past installations in Tokyo and Europe, and a long record of his exhibitions. Most of the text has been translated into English.

For 2,500 yen, it is a good deal. Hopefully, he will be able to produce another photo book. (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)


QUICK REVIEW PROFILE Quick Review Profile Help
What's Inside About the Artist Photo Evaluation
Genre: Landscape Domestic acclaim: 9 Artistic value: 10
Photo:Text ratio: 95:05 Dedication & effort: 10 Cultural value: 8
Understanding ease: 8 Vision & concept: 9.5 Historical value: 8
Overall impression: 9.5 Int'l acclaim: 9 Educational value: 9
*Rating Scale 1-10: 10-Outstanding, 9-Very good, 8-Good, 7-Average-Good, 6-Average, 5-Average-poor, 4-Poor, 3-Very poor, 2-Extremely poor, 1-No value, --Not applicable

Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Tsukudajima, Mita, Akihabara, Koto Ward (Aomi, Ariake, waterfront area), Minato Ward (Odaiba), Yubari (Hokkaido), Akasaka, Omiya, Hattachi, Yotsukura (Iwaki, Fukushima Pref.)

Artist's Bio:

Born 1957 Sakata, Yamagata Pref. Graduated Tokyo National Univ. of Fine Arts and Music in 1981, majoring in sculpture. Earned M.F.A. from the same university in 1983. His photographs are characterized by points of light or trails of light scattered in the image produced with long exposures.
For a more detailed biography, also see PhotoWho'sWho.

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