Photo-Respiration Presence or Absence 
Series commentary

Light Panels

Since light is the motif of my work, I have created many light panels. They are, I think, a mode of presentation appropriate for luminescent images.

No human beings appear in my photographs, only landscapes and objects and light. I do not deliberately avoid photographing people; rather, given the long exposures I use in my work, nothing that moves, other than light, will be captured. I draw the lines of light myself, becoming the subject, at night. The dots of light are reflections of sunlight from a mirror directed at the camera, in low exposure daylight photography.

What I seek to photograph is, in fact, the human being itself. My approach is not, however, to photograph our physical forms but to try to see the towns, the spaces in which humans work, the results of our actions. My interest is in the times and existence, without making judgments. Tiny, everyday parts of my own life, historic monuments, symbols of the contradictions in contemporary society: how much difference between them appears when I set my viewpoint on a distant time-space locus? They all, including my urge to create my works, reflect a latent, contradiction-filled, ambition to live a human life.

For these triptychs, I photographed scenes I saw while in Europe and parts of daily life, to which I added my own light. I brought these subjects of very different registers together by capturing them with a device that renders them in two dimensions, that is, as photographs.

City scape

The photograph is a powerful vehicle that takes me out of my atelier. At the same time, it serves as an interpreter between my at times fragmentary ideas and perceptions. It happens that I am naturally drawn to places, in the middle of perfectly ordinary everyday life, that have a certain magnetism—places redolent of our times, made to emit tiny scales of light.

From the late 1980s, when I began creating photographs, through the 1990s, Japan’s economic bubble stimulated an active scrap and build program, and Tokyo changed radically. I initially began working in familiar spaces, then gradually found myself making new architectural spaces and sites in the city the settings for my work, as though I was drawn to them while discovering parts with slight differences in atmospheric pressure.

I went particularly often to the newly reclaimed land in front of the site known as No. 13 on Odaiba. Part of the Tokyo Waterfront City plan, it was an ideal setting for my work: a vast area of land abandoned, its infrastructure in place, when World City Expo Tokyo was cancelled in 1995.

Among the buildings are spaces that seem like air pockets to me. There, moving my arms and legs at a set rhythm, like a long-distance runner or swimmer, I breath, and wield my light. While I keep on carrying out those actions, my mind is occupied by an abstract time in which thought and non-thought alternate.

From the Sea

To hold light in my hands: that desire always spurs my creative work. It is, however, difficult to grasp, even amidst an outpouring of light. There was not much of a gap between my starting to create works using a penlight and my thinking of shifting from working in the dark of night to working in bright sunlight.

My interest in the stagnation of the city after that crazed economic boom receded gradually. With the birth of my son, I found my life-oriented imagination was satisfied by directing it at the seas that surround Japan on all sides and the mystery of evolution in its uninterrupted continuity. I was producing work for an exhibition at the Iwaki City Art Museum, in Fukushima Prefecture, and often went down to the shore there.

In the sea, I worked while being tossed around by the waves. I first succumbed first to the urge to swim before directing my lens at the sea. It is frustratingly difficult to capture the sun while being rocked by the sea. The tides add further complexity. But I also had the inexplicable, exquisite feeling of returning to a single primitive life form. All phenomena began with the sea and the light (the sun) and, at the same, time, all are washed back into the sea: human customs from long ago come to mind. I find myself experiencing a paradox as I think about the sublime greatness of nature and the existence of humanity.

I wrote the above while working on these images in 1996. Given the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant accident that have occurred since then, I find myself again reflecting on it. The site where I created my photographs was also hit by the tsunami. Last years, I finally found the courage to revisit it. Words fail me.

In the Snow

I have hesitated before photographing in the snow. Would my footsteps be captured or not? If they were, then my agency would be highlighted; if they were not, the level of abstraction would increase. I preferred the latter. Photographs are captured through the response of photosensitive materials to light, and places on those materials that have responded to the light do not return to their former state. Thus, if I make a bright exposure of the surface of the snow, I can then make footprints in the snow (or cast shadows) and know they will not appear in the image. I usually open the camera’s shutter, then begin reflecting light back at the camera, using a mirror, from a place near it. When shooting in snow, however, I first take myself out of the frame, and then start reflecting light from the furthest place in the frame.

Photographing at night with a penlight and in the daytime using a mirror: at first, my motivation for both actions was the same, but as I continued creating these works, their meaning has come to differ considerably. Shooting at night, it is easy to control the light; I can do modeling using a small strobe, as in studio photography.Those were works that were like sculptures using light.

But as I repeatedly created works at the seaside or in natural settings in the daytime, I was toyed with by elements I could not control--the weather, the tides, and other natural phenomena. My mindset naturally changed. From being actively conscious that I was creating, I turned to the more passive position of receiving light. Particularly when photographing in the snow, the work is difficult and full of challenging contradictions--will it snow, will the sun shine?


Long ago, the Japanese Archipelago was directly linked to the Eurasian continent. Our ancestors, it is said, reached here at the end of long journeys. Beech trees also came from the mainland. Beech trees are a direct relic of that connection to the mainland. At that thought, what one’s imagination can come up with about them knows no bounds. And the forests of broadleaf trees now growing here trap, it occurs to me, deep stores of water.

The sounds one hears when alone in the forest are the sounds of the leaves rustling, branches creaking, and occasionally the cries of birds or other animals. Giving free rein to my imagination, I feel that I can understand the mindset that animated the people of the distant past to make what goes beyond the bounds of human knowledge the object of worship.

In this series, I have anthropomorphized trees. Looking at them, I have given them characters based on who in my circle a tree out in the wild seems to resemble. Their presence, their forms are as sturdy as the muscular frames of men, as bewitching as the sinuous curves of women. I attempted to take part in the space belonging to the trees, to bend my ears to their words and amplify them.

The sun rises in the east, crosses the meridian, and sets in the west. While seeking the sun filtering through the trees, I pursue the slight chance that it will penetrate to the tree I have chosen. The incident rays from the sun to the tree and the reflected light from me, close beside it, and the camera receiving both: a clear, straightforward triangle forms. That geometric tension directs me to photograph yet again.

Polaroid Works

I usually carry an 8x10 camera when I go out shooting, but I often bring a compact 4x5 camera when setting out to work overseas. Polaroids are a special material on those occasions. Back in the days before digital cameras, they let me check the image on the site and share it with others. I have also occasionally held local exhibitions of them.

The primary characteristics of photography are the reproducibility of the image and its ability to be altered. With Polaroids, the thickness of the paper—the thinness, actually—is a very physical characteristic; the uniqueness of each print gives it a distinctive character. For this series, I used Polaroid Type 59 4x5 instant sheet film.

A leisurely journey, no matter where, is a profound pleasure. That was especially true of my trip to Rome, my first experience of Europe. I walked the Appian Way with the artist Okabe Masao. I was reflecting back the sunlight we were bathed in, Okabe rubbing the surface of the land to record it: both captured the past and present of our time in Rome, each in our own ways.

I set off for Eindhoven to take part in a group show. Fastening my camera to a sturdy bicycle, I rode through the town and its outskirts in my first contact with the Dutch bicycle culture. Going the wrong direction in the ample bicycle lane won me a thorough dressing down by a policewoman.

For the Yucatan, I rented a car after the opening of my Space, Time, Memory exhibition in Mexico City and traveled around the city and to the Yucatan. I spent a week touring the Yucatan with a Mexican guide. To swim in the lagoon, I had to entrust my wallet, my passport, my camera--all my worldly goods--to the guide. I swam with extraordinary tension--and a mirror. Fortunately, I was able to produce work from the experience.

Gleaning Lights

Sometimes I think, “I want to photograph this spot.” But when I pick up my camera, peer through the viewfinder, and press the shutter button, something seems to slip away. The world captured in that rectangular frame does not measure up to what I hoped for. What I want is not a rectangular fragment but the atmosphere of that place. Perhaps what I want is to capture and bring home the place itself.

The basic act of framing, the tasks of adjusting the composition and focus are, to me, too much in compliance with the framework of modern art; those are chores I would like to avoid if I can.

With pinhole photography, the question is less what I am trying to photograph than waiting for the results. Here the framework for the formation of the photographic image is shaped by a mechanism that is prior to the individual’s will. That is not a defect but, rather, a source of its unique potential.

Like sowing seeds, I set up my camera equipment. The light passing through the pinhole portrays the world in its entirety, equally and with accurate single-point perspective. Without the handy mechanism of the viewfinder, I can only imagine the angle of view that will be captured. The act that brings the image to light, just like that, and the world depicted solely by the light pouring through the pinhole: they are light ingathered, transcending the “I want to photograph this spot” impulse.

Gleaning Lights2

It is true that digital technology is threatening the established, silver halide, photographic culture. It it becoming difficult to carry on a technology that had achieved a fully developed, perhaps perfected, form. The lith film and Polaroid film used in some of the works in this exhibition are no longer available. At the same time, the new technology has opened up an expanded range of possibilities in other directions.

Above all, the personal computer, improved speed of the recording media, and software development have made possible carrying out digital processing in much the same spirit as photographing and darkroom work. In the past, the focus in digital photography was only on its composite, synthesizing techniques. We are now at the point that it can be repositioned and used effectively, as in fine prints.

With this series, I departed from my routine of using 8x10 film to start experimenting with using a high resolution digital camera. For one panorama, I used a pinhole without a lens to shoot it. For the other, I used a lens. Both are extensions of the Gleaning Light series. Connecting the small sections to create these large picture planes was a quite exciting task.

To me, reality is in what I shoot, in what I capture. I remain captivated by the rendering power of 8x10 film, but I am also finding the digital magic packed into one compact camera rather alluring.

Wandering Camera

With my students, in connection with the establishment of a new department, I was able to bring off idea I’d come up with in the 1990s. My plan was for a camera obscura that could be hauled anywhere by car and with which we could experience life-sized images. With a 100 mm single lens with focal length of 2500 mm and a mirror set at 45 degrees, the image would come into focus on a 200 cm by 300 cm surface on the floor. The camera obscura could even become a place to stay. Using it, our project was to tour all over, from Hokkaido to Okinawa and over to Korea as well, to show it to people, get them to experience the images, and to record photographs of all sorts of places, using photosensitive materials on positive-positive printing paper and also incorporating images of people inside the camera looking at the image, as in a photogram.

The word “camera” originally meant “room.” If a small hole is pierced in a wall of an enclosed space, then the light passing through it will unilinearly project the scene outside. The light pouring in, in a straight line, from the pinhole is an extremely simple structure that reveals the secret of seeing and of being visible. The mystery of the phenomenon that its surprising simplicity creates never fades, adding new interest in the sense of sight even our complex present.

Our inspiration, the fact that light shining into a room creates an image, expanded into a camera obscura as big as a house. In addition, we came up with the idea of a huge, mobile camera obscura that would leap into the middle of a town instead of waiting for people to come to experience it. And instead of just talking about it, we actually built it.

It started as the “Wandering Camera (House) Project.” But we did not directly describe our journey with this camera as “wandering.” Instead, the start was a question: is there a house to come home to in our consciousness of what we rely on, our sense of our age, of nation, our sense of ourselves as human beings, our identity? A journey assumes a place to come home to. Do the roots of our sense of self, for people living today, lack a settled home? Our journey north to south, throughout Japan, was connected to trying to ascertain the true answer to that question.

Wandering Camera 2

It was in the early 1990s that I built a camera obscura as a means of sharing my on-site imagination with others. In the Wandering Camera Project, we captured images directly on cibachrome paper and direct color paper, spreading the paper on floor of the mobile camera. Sharing the experience has continued to be part of the project. Recently we began a project using a tent as a camera obscura and recording, as a work of photography, the image projected on the ground inside the camera obscura tent.

Because the ground is inside a dark tent, I could see nothing through the camera’s viewfinder. Setting up a light, I could manage to adjust the focus somehow. But seeing the light flow in and the image forming is an experience I utterly have never gotten enough of, after over two decades of observing it.

The significance of looking with the camera obscura is to see, in the fresh ways this camera offers, subjects that we ordinarily take for granted or cliches we hesitate to use. What I am working on now is grasping with the camera obscura, in the same way, places a few ripples removed from the everyday.

In this series, I started with the landscape visible from my house and then set off from the Tohoku to the Sanriku, at the very north of Honshu, which I had visited in the past. And, above all, I thought in the process I would try to generate a conscious sense that the Japanese archipelago is long and narrow and that we are in a country in which where the sun rises from the sea and where it sets exist simultaneously.

While smaller than the camera in the original Wandering Camera project, this tent camera is large. I am currently making a somewhat smaller one. This project thus has technical problems and is far from completion. Nonetheless, I wanted to show these works as forms that are part of an ongoing progression.

Critic Document

A Poetics of Penetrating Light

Sanda Haruo / Art journalist

While mine may not be the most sensitive eye, I have, in the course of training it over the course of many exhibitions, learned to make a rough estimation of a work when I see it. In my long experience as a writer engaged in such fieldwork, however, I have rarely found myself standing stock still in front of a work, riveted by its impact. But once, over a quarter of a century ago, at a 1988 solo exhibition by Sato Tokihiro in a gallery in Ginza, I felt that rare thrill. I still vividly recall my excitement. The event was a solo exhibition announcing what now seems like a monumental turning point, the beginning of Sato’s shift from sculpture, his major at Tokyo University of the Arts, to the medium of photography. To me, though, having just begun my tours of the Tokyo art scene and knowing nothing about the circumstances behind that exhibition, it was just another random encounter. 

How many photographs were there that far from spacious gallery? The details are gone with the wind; only the singular images, which captured my eye as soon as I entered the gallery, remain fresh in my memory, perhaps because I looked at them over and over, never tiring of them. The setting for those photographs was, perhaps, a building at Tokyo University of the Arts, Sato’s alma mater. In stairways, hallways, and rooms cloaked in darkness, were clusters of frail white lines, bending, rising from the floor. Like linear life-forms with a will of their own, ranks of them moved, multiplying, from downstairs to upstairs, upstairs to downstairs, without a sound. What were those clusters of wavering white lines? Sato himself was unfortunately not there to answer my question. The gallery owner, to whom I did address it, revealed the secret: they were the traces of light from a penlight that the artist himself waved around within his camera’s field of view. By making an extended exposure, leaving the shutter open, the shadow of the artist himself, who repeatedly acted and moved, disappeared from the images. Of course, it was the same principle as in a photograph of a city at night, when the cars driving on the streets turn into lines and bands of light. I remember, as though it was yesterday, how much I admired those images. Although the nature of the white lines and the mechanism by which they were produced had been revealed, the initial shock from the photographs, the thrilling, mysterious feeling, the shivers that ran through me, did not fade away. The living breath of the groups of white lines filling the spaces, bending and swaying (i.e., the traces of the light from the penlight that Sato himself, the invisible man, had waved about) and the actions like a living being with a will, endlessly transformed the lifeless interior of a dark building into a place alive with new concepts and illusions.

At that exhibition, I learned that Sato had originally created steel sculptures, but years passed before I found out any more about them. Then, luckily, the catalogue for Photo-Respiration, Tokihiro Sato's View, an exhibition held in 1999 at the Sakata City Museum of Art, in Sato’s hometown, included a photograph of one of his sculptures, Blessed Rain, and a detailed analysis by Sasaki Kazuo, who was then a curator at the museum. According to the catalogue, which finally filled in that gap in my knowledge, Sato, while working with iron as his main material, was not merely sculpting forms, he was also utilizing phenomena such as rust or vaporization, which he set in motion, in conjunction with soil, water, burned charcoal, and plants to produce installations based on an ecological or environmental perspective.

Nonetheless, frustrated by the sense that what he ended up with was merely “a lump of iron,”★1 he broke away from sculpture. Sato sees this stalemate with the medium as rooted in its tendency to become “a device with a clear relationship between cause and effect.”★2 He saw photography, on the other hand, as “filled with the latent potential for dealing with four-dimensional problems, when light is layered on the film,” ★3 and thus the ability to transcend sculpture. In a panel discussion, he also explained his dissatisfaction with sculpture, “I felt the works I was creating had no relationship with society; they seemed to be alienated, isolated presences.” ★4 If we can infer the internal motivations that led Sato to photography from these comments, we should not overlook external motivations. In about 1970, a previous generation of artists, including Enokura Koji, who was managing the Photography Center at Tokyo University of the Arts, had already begun to make photography a crucial medium. Sato’s photography did not follow the same path as his precursors. These works by painters and sculptors could be characterized as documenting action or production or, alternatively, as conceptual. Sato’s, in contrast, was consistently based on the idea of “sculpting with light.” ★5 That gives his work its striking individuality.

“What the painter calls value cannot be added with photography. The photograph is determined at the movement it is shot. To put it another way, the means by which a subject is chosen carries a decisive weight in photography.” ★6 That observation by poet and philosopher Yoshimoto Takaaki, who was known to be passionately interested in photography, is but a fragmentary thought on the similarities and differences between painting and photography. Sato could also be said to have been acutely aware of that “decisive weight,” both when he was making sculpture and after his switching to photography. That can be clearly inferred from this comment: “Early on, I began considering ‘What does living mean?’ or ‘What is life?’ as themes for sculpture, and I began making three-dimensional works various elements of life like light and water.”★7 His interest lay in examining “the times and existence without passing judgment”★8 and in “breathing, that is, living – something xiomatic but unconscious. The foundation of my work is raising awareness about physiological actions that are completely taken for granted.”★9 Further, the subject he chose was “a place that could be imbued with the atmosphere of the times, like delicate butterfly scales made to emit light.”★10

The light that appears in Sato’s photographs leaps from the interior of buildings to the outside. Given his wish that his work not be “an isolated presence with no relationship to society,” his shift to photography may have been inevitable. Waving his penlight, his lightsaber, meant, however, that his photography, at least outdoors, could only occur at night. During the hours when sunlight is pouring down on earth, until sunset, what sort of lightsaber could he use instead of a penlight? Given how intelligent Sato is, he is certain to have come up with the answer in a flash. (If my assumption is wrong and he had to stumble around to come up with a solution, I apologize for my indulgent word play.) At any rate, the answer Sato found – his second weapon, after the penlight – was a hand mirror. Setting up his camera on a tripod with the shutter open, he repeatedly moved around within its field of view, collecting sunlight with the mirror and reflecting it back at the camera. Because he was making long exposures, his own form, as he moved around, and the shapes of other people or cars going by would, in effect, volatilize instead of becoming part of the image. He found promising subjects in the city – structures such as high-rise buildings, houses, shops, and factories, tree- lined roads, traffic lights, signage of all sorts, streets – and in the natural world – rocky shores, forests in the mountains, the surfaces of lakes. These series are composed of these immobile subjects and of the clusters of white dots that are the traces of the reflected light that Sato, mirror in hand and constantly changing his position, sent back to the camera from here and there. He has been developing these dazzling scenes filled with the poetics of light, unique, paranormal, mystical, since the early 1990s.

The penlight, his first weapon, did not, however, fall out of use. It goes into action at night, replacing the mirror whose daytime work is done. Let us focus next on “a place that could be imbued with the atmosphere of the times, like delicate butterfly scales made to emit light” that Sato had chosen as his subject. First, the main setting for his series made with a penlight was what is now called “Tokyo Waterfront City,” the coastal area along Tokyo Bay that was being hastily redeveloped and filled in. The buildings rising steadily higher suggest a vision of the near future, while the urban concept that prioritizes their functions and management riddles the area with dread that “breathing, that is, living” will inevitably be quelled. The ambivalence presented by such places arouses Sato’s desire to create. In his color works, with construction equipment on a site in the process of being developed or abandoned cars dumped on as yet undeveloped wasteland traced in curving lines, as though quivering slightly, we register Sato’s gaze, his interest in “the times and existence, without passing judgment.” From the perspective of “sculpture with light,” this group of works – with clusters of white spirals dynamically intertwined in structures in areas under development, on the surfaces of roads, or in long ditches on land yet to be prepared for construction, wildly dancing, multiplying, and metamorphosing the shapes of the subject into fantastic three-dimensional structures of light – should be designated the masterpieces of his early period.

With a longer range than the penlight series, the hand-mirror series is ongoing. The settings are not confined to Tokyo but include other parts of Japan and places far across the seas. Perhaps its longevity is related to having fewer restrictions on his work than at night, or because the drowsy, mirror-generated world, like a daydream engendered from a scene of floating dots of white light, has met with a broader range of response than the penlight series, enveloped in its slightly disturbing atmosphere. I recall, for example, other early period hand-mirror works that were profoundly impressive, with other settings, including busy commercial and recreational areas in the city center like Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Akihabara.

Particularly noteworthy as an example of his interest in the “times and existence, without passing judgment” is the profound lyricism is his series on the facilities at a former mine in Yubari, Hokkaido. The cluster of innumerable dots of light floating across and nestling close to the site seems to be comforting the decaying buildings. Light from an alien dimension, creating illusions of fireflies, and the ruins of the coal mines that once supported an industrializing society: If the mines are symbols of modern Japan’s historical memory, the clusters of light nestling close to them are the perspective of the artist focused on his subject from a point in the present, his externalized consciousness – or unconscious. Thinking about the present, today, a present reached after experiencing the nuclear power plant disasters at Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011, I find nothing more topical than the large-scale work, a triptych, he published in 1994, after returning from France. At the center is a small image of bottled foods, the light from his penlight coiled around them. On the right and left are large images, of a stone circle on the right and a French nuclear power plant on the left. Clustered dots of light, reflections from his hand mirror, overlap the scenes of the prehistoric site and the nuclear plant. Here, one unmistakably senses a magnificent lyrical poetry singing peerlessly of the present in human history, with all its foibles, consistently fixated on a penetrating “poetics of light,” a poetry incorporating comparisons of individual and society, nature and culture, the distant past and the present.

Thus, Sato has established the dual style that might be described as his creative trademark. If we retrace and compare the distinctive characteristics of his penlight and hand-mirror series, we find the light in his penlight series has a physical, performative quality, presenting an emotional expansion of a latent desire for a disparate construction of space. The light in his hand-mirror series, its disembodied, non-performative quality highlighted, conceals a quiet will to turn dimensions sideways while consistently maintaining a quiet, reticent guise. But while these two types of light differ strikingly in the state they realize, there is no difference in their histories: they slowly emerge from the artist’s interior, sparked by an exterior landscape, and slide into that landscape. The creative concept Sato entrusts to light is vividly illuminated within a shared mode of materialization. Sato’s concept of light is, indeed, comparable to the following words by Goethe from his The Theory of Colors: ★11

The eye may be said to owe its existence to light, which calls forth, as it were, a sense that is akin to itself; the eye, in short, is formed with reference to light, to be fit for the action of light; the light it contains corresponding with the light without.

(Sato’s internal light, the light his eye contains, is, of course, unrelated to the religious belief system that forms Goethe’s spiritual background.)

Let us examine the light that appears in Sato’s photographs more closely. Particularly since encountering his hand-mirror series, I have felt that the two aspects of photography that French philosopher Roland Barthes proposed in his theory of photography apply to photography by Sato, an artist of whom Barthes was completely unaware. What Barthes termed the studium are those elements in a photograph that are culturally coded, that culture contextualizes and explains, that are anchored in a conventional, cultural response. What he calls the punctum, taken from the Latin word for a puncture or small hole or dot, punctures or damages the cultural coding of the studium, and scrambles it. Barthes’ description of the punctum as taking the form of a dot made an association, in the back of my mind, with the clusters of white dots of light in Sato’s work. If the actual landscape, whether the Tokyo waterfront or Yubari, consists of elements of the studium in contemporary Japan, then the dots of light floating in it must be the punctum, disturbing the appearance of that landscape and the established order behind it. That sensation of an alien dimension, a daydream, that many undoubtedly experience from viewing works in the hand-mirror series then arises from the dimensional disjuncture between the landscape, the studium, and the antagonistic punctum, the clusters of dots of light.

Sato’s photographic universe began with the penlight series and developed with the hand-mirror series. Since the mid 1990s, the hand mirror seems to have been his principle tool. Instead of the penlight so essential in his early period, works and projects using the camera obscura have taken on a greater importance. These could be said to be attempts to reexamine the fundamental principles, the origins, of photography, to reconfirm how we capture the image of the external world that light carries to us. Yamanaka Nobuo, from the generation of photographers just before Sato (Yamanaka died in New York in 1982, at the age of 34) had already left noteworthy achievements in this arena. He is famous for having used his own apartment or a borrowed room in an office building as his “pinhole room.” Using this large camera obscura, he papered the walls with photographic paper and lith film, fixing inverted images of scenes outside on it, and for his singular cityscapes bordered by a spiral of the circling sun’s rays, shot with a homemade pinhole camera. But Sato is less interested in creating works than developing experiential projects with the camera obscura. He has turned almost everything into a camera obscura – not just a room but lockers, shoe boxes, pots, saké casks, even vehicles like rickshaws and buses. On the walls inside and the screens he sets up there, he projects (upside down, of course) images of the scene outside in real time.

Of his camera obscura work, the large-scale works he tackled for the Breathing Landscapes exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama in 1999 are fresh in my memory today. They are undoubtedly among the finest in this series. Personally, however, I find myself responding even more to his 2006 work in which he turned the former changing room for female workers at the site of an old textile factory in Omi, the entire tatami-floored room, into a camera obscura. I also cherish the 1996 work in which he hauled a set of lockers (with nail holes pounded into in each of the storage units) into a classroom in the former Akasaka Elementary School so that, when he opened the doors, the scene outside floated there upside down in the darkness. There is no better alternative to the standard white cube than setting up a camera obscura in an everyday place where people actually live and work to capture images of the quotidian exterior in real time.

In this case, since we have an exhibition in a museum specializing in photography, the display consists mostly of prints; there are no experiential works. But the exhibition does include his series of 24 prints depicting the Brooklyn Bridge and Ground Zero in New York from a 360-degree perspective with his spherical camera obscura made up of 24 linked pinhole cameras. Unlike Photo-Respiration, a title he has used in the past, Gleaning Light tells us that this is a camera obscura series that captures the natural light from outside. While in recent years, Sato has had a number of exhibitions overseas, we have had few chances to see his new efforts in Japan. Thus, this opportunity to see the path Sato’s photography has taken and how it has developed in recent years – all new to me – is utterly delightful.

Since I first accidentally encountered Sato’s penlight works, the context of photography has completely changed. Most conspicuously, the rapid shift to digital photography has, apparently, brought about unexpected changes in the field of photographic technology. I am in the habit of listening to CDs instead of taking sleeping pills, and thus often go to music stores. There I see advertisements for old performances, recorded during or even before World War II, that have apparently been remastered and restored with astonishingly clear audio quality. Because I myself think that listening to the originals, difficult as they are to hear, is more appropriate for historic performances, I have never picked up one of those recordings. But considering today’s technology, I realize that it is possible that they might actually contain amazing sounds. For related reasons, this exhibition is quite different from the solo exhibitions that Sato has held at art museums in the past. Groups of his older works, made with penlight and hand mirror, have been upgraded, thanks to today’s advanced digital technology, to attain a sharper image quality. With the same excitement I feel before listening to a CD of a remastered historic performance, I look forward to the day these new versions are unveiled. Whatever the outcome, the impact of the poetics of light stored in my memory has not faded in the least.


★1 Quotation by Sato in Minemura Toshiaki, “Hikari ga hiraku shinpi” (The secrets light opens up), catalogue for Photo-Respiration, Tokihiro Sato exhibition, Gallery GAN, 1996.
★2 Sato Tokihiro, Taiken! Gendai bijutsu mimizuku aato shiiingu (Experience! Contemporary art, a horned owl sees art) (1991).
★3 Ibid.
★4 “Zadankai Sato Tokihiro no sekai” (Panel discussion: The world of Saito Tokihiro), in Photo-Respiration, Sato Tokihiro (Nikon Nikkor Club, 1997).
★5 Sugawara Norio, “Gendai Nihon aatisuto meikan” (A directory of contemporary artists in Japan), Bijutsu techo, January, 1993.
★6 Yoshimoto Takaaki, “Kamera shugyo” (Camera training), in Heikei no kioku (Memory of the context), 1999.
★7 Photo-Respiration, Sato Tokihiro (1997), as in note 4, above.
★8 Sato Tokihiro, “1996 nen shichigatsu no nooto” (Notes from July, 1996), in catalogue for Photo-Respiration, Tokihiro Sato exhibition, as in note 1, above.
★9 Ibid.
★10 Ibid.
★11 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, trans. Charles Locke Eastlake, Theory of Colors, (John Murray, 1840).
★12 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (Hill and Wang, 1981).

Sato Tokihiro: Something That I’ll Never Really See

Martin Barnes / Senior Curator, Photographs Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When I look at Sato Tokihiro’s entrancing photographs, showing sparkling lights clustered in woodland, I am reminded of the first time I saw fireflies. It was in a garden in Padua, Italy. Twilight was encroaching as I began to see specks of light dancing in the gloom. I was in a weary state – at the end of a day of travel and sightseeing – and my brain momentarily shortcut from reasoned deduction to fantastical imaginings to try and make sense of what I was seeing. I remember the powerful few seconds of a confused but magical sense of wonder as I grasped for an explanation. It was only once I had dismissed the fairy tales, supernatural and religious stories, and the phantasmagoric illusions of cinema that are embedded in my consciousness that I found the explanation in the natural world. Moving closer I saw the flying creatures with lighted bodies and realized I was witnessing something quite rational which I had heard about but never seen before. This was bioluminescence, the emission of light by a living organism. But it was my unfamiliarity with the sight that had sent me on a brief, naïve, but pleasurable, journey of fantasy.

I was left smiling with delight at the spectacle and amused at my own gullibility. Deducing and then knowing what the lights really were and how they were made, however, did not diminish my enchantment. The innocent supernatural fantasy, once experienced, and the equally wondrous natural reality could co-exist, gaining in potency through their interrelation. Contrary to what we might think, with ambiguity, interpretation becomes possible. Gaining more information and seeking rational explanation is not often the way to our hearts. Facts can enhance our understanding but if we hold on to facts alone, we do so at the expense of imagination. So it is usually advisable to hold on to some essence of a first response to an artwork in which we do not fully understand how it is made.

In retrospect, I think my first reaction to seeing fireflies was conditioned by a pre-existing receptive state of mind; a heightened awareness to the possibility of the joint realms of the rational and the inexplicable. I had traveled to Padua on an art historical pilgrimage to see the early 14th-century frescoes painted by Giotto in the Arena Chapel. Seeing the paintings filled me with appreciation and an attitude of reflection. Giotto’s human figures impart a serene monumentality and dignity through their gestures as they enact the biblical story. The artist’s imagination allowed him to translate the words of the story into pictures, showing both the visible realm of man and the invisible world of spirit existing in the same place. In the paintings, the trials and joys of human struggle, men and angels, can be seen together as their worlds intersect. At the scenes of the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Lamentation, angels with golden, circular haloes – and with tails and wings of trailing fire – swoop and hover around the scene. Their movements and attitudes embody and express the emotions in the pictures. They are part of the paintings but also interpreters of the image. As viewers, we identify with them as our guides and interlocutors. The bright mysteries in Sato’s photographs seem to me to act as similarly guiding lights. Sato’s works beguile us first with their beauty, and then pose a puzzle for us about their making. We yearn for a practical explanation at the same time as enjoying the appearance of an illusion. Since we are still conditioned to the codes of photography as promising truth, we are inclined at first to believe what we see. What intrigues me about Sato’s photographs is that they depict a different kind of truth that lies on either side of a conventional understanding of reality. They do not render surface appearances but manage to reveal both a space of fantasy and a peculiarly photographic truth. This is the record of the ephemeral imagination of the artist: the exploration of a three-dimensional space in the real world that is rendered into the imaginary, two-dimensional plane of a photograph. Sato physically enters the space of the photograph, drawing with flashlights and mirrors, and exits again, leaving no trace of his own physical presence but a record of his gestures and energy. He appears almost everywhere at once, and also nowhere. While his traces are like pinpoint coordinates on a map, all we can do is estimate his continually moving location and follow the hundreds of possible connecting trails. In this way, his photographs can be seen as enigmatic sculptural, physical performances.

Yet these are not, of course, performances that create sculpture in any conventional sense. As he has noted: “Since the starting point for my work was to deny the depiction or making of concrete things, I was very grateful to photography, which automatically gives solid expression to the world.”★1 Sato recognizes that photography captures and freezes the world, but does so in its own terms. It contains inherently its own version of truth, one that can be found in the long duration as well as the instant of time, and in the accumulation of light. Especially through a long exposure, and in its capacity for detail, it records what the eye cannot see or grasp at one glance. Sato’s photographs record both his imagination, and the vision of camera, for he is a dexterous collaborator with technology and time.

There is something particularly satisfying about Sato’s marrying of conceptual ideas and practical methods. Photography has its particular language of opposites and apparent contradictions embedded in its historical processes, its techniques, and its theoretical terminology – light exposure and dark rooms, positives and negatives, transparency and opacity, latent and developed images, mirrors and windows, and still images that freeze movement. And it has a magical imprint of alchemy in its DNA. Sato also deals with opposites, seeming contradictions, and alchemical transformation.

During the darkness of night, Sato uses a flashlight to draw lines that describe the flow of his pathways in the scene. In the brightness of the day, he employs a neutral density filter to enable a long exposure without overexposure, and he uses a circular mirror to reflect the sun’s rays back at the camera to make images that are punctuated with dots. It is these images that I find especially pleasing, both visually and conceptually. The dot, or hole, echoes the aperture of the camera, or the basic pinhole, which is all that is required to make a camera obscura that casts an image in a darkened space. In his mirror-reflecting images, Sato uses the power of the sun to momentarily blind the camera, creating an area in the image that registers on film as an intense flare of light. Although we know that Sato is standing somewhere in the scene with his mirror reflecting the light back, we sometimes struggle to locate precisely where these lights are positioned within the perspective recession of the image. Sato questions how we read and measure the distance of light from our standpoint which, in his images, is implied as the same as the standpoint of his camera. A mirror is designed to produce the reflection of an image. Yet here, the mirror reflects nothing back but a beam of light. I am reminded of the tale of the philosopher Diogenes, searching by day with his lantern in the symbolic act of trying to find and reveal an honest man with its light.

Sato also sets up opposites not just in his process but also in his chosen locations: landscape and cityscape, natural and artificial. Illuminations in the city, apart from those from cars and utilitarian street lighting, imply celebration, a human beautification of the urban. At Christmas time in Britain, there are lights that decorate each town’s high street. And in the north part of the country, where I grew up, there is the famous annual festival called the Blackpool Illuminations, which extends for six miles along the town’s coastal road. Such decorative lights in a city environment draw attention to the architectural structure of the street and the spaces between things. Sato’s city lights are less obviously celebratory and more contemplative. Moving cars and pedestrians sometimes create a blur during his long exposures, accumulating ghosts of human presences. Sato’s points of light amid the urban flow have the effect of cutting through time, enforcing points of concentrated stillness amid the relentless pace of city life. When we see the still lights, the streets devoid of traffic, and the population that should fill the space, we look at the city anew. Sato’s intervention here is humble yet powerful, making us reconsider the interstices, and the spaces between and around the flow of movements in the environments where we live. In contrast to the city, we often seek to regain peace and focus through immersion in nature. Sato’s photographs of the ocean and the forest take these archetypal subjects of redemptive landscape and give them a spectral twist. It is as if he manages to tease out normally invisible nature spirits that naturally inhabit such beautiful locations. His choice of location is informed not by popularity but rather by intuition; as he has noted: ‘I intuitively perceive an aura in some spaces. It may derive from the historical import of the place. I select the locations I photograph based on my own sense of their significance.★2

Visions of Victorian spirit photographs, and hoax images of fairies dancing in woodland spring to mind. Yet Sato’s works are more believable because they are the result of an actual rather than a fabricated event. It is our imagination that completes the magic. The lights have an anthropomorphic, organic quality rather than an artificial or technical appearance because they are placed in the landscape with the same proportions as the human body at the reaches of Sato’s own body. Wherever he can climb on a rock, swim in the water, stoop towards the earth, or reach toward a branch to shine a light or reflect his mirror, his trace may be found. While his images may invoke a contemplative state, the process of their making is far from sedate. Consider the astonishing effort Sato makes in physically traversing the distance he needs to shine a light from each of the coordinates in his images. All the while, he is traveling between points in the scene, expending his breath and energy to create the desired result. That is why his title of Photo Respiration is so appropriate.

Knowing how Sato makes his images, we recognize there is not a multiplicity of presences indicated by the lights, but instead a multiplicity of one presence: the artist’s. In this way, his omnipresence might be a hint pf some kind of divinity: the ever-present force of an invisible creator. Or it may simply be a record of the pulse, the movement, the breath of one human force. However it is interpreted, human or divine, the light is a kind of mark that asserts both transcendence and specificity: “I was here,” even if, as in life, it is only momentarily. Sato’s effort seems to symbolize a journey of inner as well as outer discovery, of both individual, human uniqueness and pantheistic omniscience. And it epitomizes the popular adage of the independent seeker: “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

There does not appear to be a specifically spiritual motivation behind Sato’s work, but rather a broader and inclusive notion of what the spiritual might be. He has said: “I don’t think about my art in a spiritual context. However, it is a fact that light evokes such connotations. Also, my own activity involves monotonous repetition such as breathing, which in itself might well be a spiritual world.” ★3

I see Sato as having some affinity with other contemporary artists who use experimental techniques of photography to enhance the meaning and poetry of the medium, and communicate messages about the potency and reality of invisible forces. These include the British artists Adam Fuss, Susan Derges and Garry Fabian Miller, all of whom explore the basic essence of photography – light time and light sensitive surfaces – to create revelatory images that engage with the ephemeral and the sublime. They use the photographic process to see what we cannot perceive with the naked eye. The borders between art practice and some form of spiritual suggestion in this kind of work are, appropriately, indistinct. In Sato’s work, the permeable boundaries of time suggest a slippage between the real and the supernatural. At the very least, Sato posits the reality of the invisible in a way that artist Paul Klee would have understood when he wrote: “Art doesn’t reproduce the visible. It renders visible.” Again, the dichotomies and binary opposites apparent both in the process of photography and in Sato’s work create the possibility of perceiving what lies, usually undetected, between the poles. Sato has said, “Our existence is only possible because of some overwhelming non-existence. In this vein, all of us alive today are only here because of those who lived before us. I believe that the idea of ‘being’ can be most strongly expressed in the idea of absence and it is closely related to the people with deep spiritual connection who tend to believe none visible reality.” ★4

This returns me to the fireflies in the garden, and my initial, suspended sense of awe as I beheld the spectacle but could not explain what I saw. My rational thought was momentarily absent. In this space arose an absence that was both nothing and yet also a possibility. In retrospect, I understand that the opposite of rational is not always irrational, but can also be “trans-rational” – something transformative, like art, death, infinity or love, that is greater than the rational mind can process.


★1 Elizabeth Siegel, Tokihiro Sato: Photo Respiration, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2005), p. 28.
★2 Ibid, p. 31.
★3 Ibid.
★4 Ibid.

A World That Can Only Exist in Photography: The Captured and the Uncaptured

Suzuki Yoshiko / Curator Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography

“Back when I was creating material objects in actual spaces, sculptures, if you will, what I studied was the history of contemporary art, including conceptual art, land art, and Japan’s Mono-ha. I tried all sorts of experiments and discovered a world and a method that could only exist in photographs, leaving no actual trace in nature or the city, in the primordial principle that light passing through a small hole will form an image.”★1

The primordial principle that light passing through a small hole will form an image is the essential element in Sato Tokihiro’s work. To grasp the meaning of Sato’s use of the pinhole camera, camera obscura, and long exposures as creative methods, however, we need to understand the distinctive characteristics of those mechanisms and methods.

Image as Substance: From a Fleeting Image to a Fixed Photograph

The first human experience of imaging was the phenomenon in which images are formed by light passing through a pinhole. It has been hypothesized that the creators of the Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira made use of the pinhole phenomenon. The oldest surviving record, however, is a mention in a fifth century BCE text by the Chinese Warring States period philosopher Mozi. In Europe, in the fourth century BCE, Aristotle noticed a great number of crescent shapes, the same shape as the sun during a partial solar eclipse, projected on the dark ground, and discovered that they were formed by light passing through small gaps between the leaves of trees. In the tenth century, Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), an Arab mathematician and astronomer, discovered that the smaller the pinhole, the clearer the projected image.

The camera obscura, an application of the pinhole principle, makes it possible to control that image. In Latin, its means “dark chamber.” Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks also mention the camera obscura. By the time of the Renaissance, this optical device was familiar to many scientists, artists, and magicians.

The camera obscura is a room, box, or other closed dark space in which a pinhole has been opened, often with a lens attached, to project the scene outside in its interior. Using a mirror, it is possible to reflect that image onto a screen, attach tracing paper to the screen, and then trace it with pen or brush, to produce an accurate depiction using single-point perspective. Artists made active use of this tool. In the Netherlands in the 17th century, for example, Vermeer is thought to have utilized the camera obscura extensively. With further improvements in the device made from the 17th through the 19th centuries, the clarity of the resulting image improved, but there was no way to make it permanent except by using the hand to sketch or paint it.

It was Nicéphore Niépce’s heliography (“sun drawing”) that first succeeded in fixing these images to produce a permanent photograph from nature. But because this process required exposures of eight hours or more, it was not terribly practical. It was Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre who succeeded in taking Niépce’s work further, developing a process that gained widespread popularity. His invention, the daguerreotype, was announced in 1839 as the world’s first practical photographic process. The invention of the daguerreotype made it possible to turn a transitory image into a permanent one. The image became substance as the photograph.

Long Exposures

A daguerreotype required an exposure of ten to 20 minutes, much shorter than the time required in Niépce’s heliography. But if the subject moved during the exposure, the image would be blurred, semi-transparent, or disappear altogether. In order to be properly recorded, the subject of a portrait had to remain very still for the whole time. One famous image clearly illustrates that fact: Daguerre’s daguerreotype entitled Boulevard du Temple, Paris. Apart from one man who seems to have been standing immobile while Daguerre exposed the image, there is no sign of a human being or horse and carriage, despite the fact that the photograph was taken on a city street in the middle of the day.

The need for long exposures was seen as a problem to be overcome in the photographic process, resulting in various improvements. With more sensitive photosensitive materials and faster shutter speeds, it became possible for photographs to capture brief moments.

Absolute Image /Absolute Print

With a photosensitive substrate available, the image created by light and a pinhole could take material form as a photograph. There are thus two ways of thinking about the photograph. In one, the image is absolute and the size of the photograph can be changed at will. In the other, the materials making up the substrate – the size of the photograph and the type of photographic printing paper, for example – are significant.

William Henry Fox Talbot’s invention of another means of photography was nearly simultaneous with the birth of the daguerreotype. His was a negative-positive process that enabled the user to make multiple prints from the same image. It also became possible to change the size of the print at will by enlarging it. With the variability of the print’s size no longer an issue, the absolute priority of the image dominated the field for decades. From the 1980s on, however, the focus shifted to the photograph as an object. How the final print took form, including its size and the materials used, became of great interest.

Photography as a Medium Created by Light and Time

The photograph was born when light and time created an image in space and a substance that could fix that image, a photo-sensitive material, became available. The resulting medium exists thanks to both the photographic device and the photosensitive material – i.e., the camera and film. A single-minded focus on improving the quality of both has defined the history of the technical side of photography since its invention.

In photographic devices, great progress has been made toward realizing several objectives: clearer lenses, smaller cameras, and faster shutter speeds. The shift from analog to digital photography has delivered even higher resolutions, while enabling cameras to become more compact and even to be built into mobile phones. Given how handy cameras have become, photography is being used everywhere, and the Web is flooded with snapshots. Even actions that used to be indispensable in taking a photograph – such as putting film in a camera, setting the aperture and shutter speed, and getting ready to shoot – are long forgotten by most people today. They may not even know that such things once existed.

The camera as such has been replaced by a process of taking photographs by touching a mark on a liquid crystal screen and capturing image data that can be distributed throughout a digital world. Photographic equipment has become a black box that no longer recalls the principle in which images are created by light and time. Today’s world is far removed from the discovery of the pinhole phenomenon.

Yet the principle in which light passes through a small hole to create an image remains an immutable fact. By going way back in time, reversing the direction of photography’s evolution from long exposure to instant pictures, from large to small cameras, from analogue to digital, and set our sights on the birth of the medium from the discovery of the pinhole image, centuries before the birth of Christ, we approach the core of Sato’s work. What Sato attempts is an exploration, through his own creative work, of the relationship between light and time – the origin of imaging.


The countless dots of light in these photographs are sunlight that Sato has reflected back towards the camera with a mirror. Each point of light is also evidence that Sato had been at that spot. Yet not all the light in a scene appears in the photograph. Though Sato clearly moved while carrying his light-emitting object through the landscape from point to point, no trace of him remains in the photograph.

Sato is invisible in these photographs due to the long-exposure principle. Because the lens, camera, and film in present-day technology are highly sensitive, the shutter is usually open for only the briefest instant in conventional photography. To counter these advances, Sato attaches a blackish filter (a neutral density or ND filter) to his lens, reducing the amount of light passing through it and lengthening the exposure time, giving him the time to walk around within the scene and reflect back light. In #347 Hattachi (p. 37) we see a photograph of the Hattachi shore at the city of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. Sato, clad in a wet suit and holding a hand mirror, moved into the sea to direct his mirror at the lens of the large-format (8 x 10) camera he had set up on a tripod on the beach. Floating, swimming, he moved from place to place to aim his mirror and then shoot the light towards the camera from the next spot, repeating these actions for about an hour. The exposure continued until Sato emerged from the water and closed the shutter, but not one glimpse of him remains in the photograph. In this long exposure, both large and small waves are smoothed into a white band of soft mist in the center of the picture plane. Everything that moved was erased. The only things that remain are the stubbornly immobile tetrapods, the straight horizon, and the reflections of the strong sunlight from the mirror.

Gleaning Lights

The Gleaning Lights series, created using pinhole cameras, is the result of the same long-exposure principle as in the Photo-Respiration series – only traces of the parts of the scene that were moving during the exposure are recorded. In Photo-Respiration, the image in motion is made transparent. In Gleaning Lights, it is not captured perfectly but instead becomes semi-transparent and blurred. Despite becoming more substantial with the accumulation of time, no traces of Sato’s actions are visible in Photo-Respiration. His actions have become utterly transparent. In Gleaning Lights by contrast, the subject, a Ferris wheel in an amusement park, is blurred and the movements of the people there are semi-transparent. In the blurred, semi-transparent world of Gleaning Lights, we sense strongly the passage of time.

What expressive approaches are unique to the pinhole camera? A pinhole fundamentally has a pan focus. It does not have an angle of view characteristic of a lens. Thus, every spot in the resulting image appears to be in focus. The pinhole camera makes it possible to achieve an image from wide angle to telephoto.

To make use of that distinctive feature of the pinhole camera and further develop his style of visual expression, Sato makes his own pinhole cameras. These can be categorized as one of two types. The first consists of a camera with multiple pinholes that records images shot at different times from different directions on a same sheet of 8 x 10 film. This type enables him to shoot multiple exposures, superimposing two or more images that shift through time and space. This method has a depth of field and wide angle characteristic of a pinhole camera and also allows for long-exposure effects. With the combined elements of changing time and place, long exposures, multiple exposures, pan focus, and differences in angle of view, Sato uses these cameras to create visual effects that are unreal and illusory, giving the work as a whole the feel of a world in another dimension, as in a science-fiction movie.

Sato’s other type of pinhole camera, consisting of a group of 24 single-hole pinhole cameras set at 45-degree angles from each other, can capture a scene in 360 degrees. While also containing disparities in time and direction, these photographs depict a world that is different from that of the multiple pinhole camera. As a whole, the camera captures a single panorama, but each of the photographs exists as an independent image. As a result, instead of the smooth temporal flow achieved with the multiple pinhole camera, we see snippets of time as in a frame-by-frame playback.

Wandering Camera

In both Photo-Respiration and Gleaning Lights, Sato exists outside the camera. In Wandering Camera, he dwells within it. This is possible because, in this series, he used a camera obscura.

Sato builds his camera obscuras himself. Their structures are not modeled on the small devices that Renaissance artists used as a drawing tool, but rather on the large versions built as spectacles for popular entertainment. Several people can stand inside the camera and enjoy looking at the image projected on the floor there.

In Sato’s Wandering Camera Project, begun in 2000, he took this a step further by devising a camera that could be pulled by an automobile. The top of the camera is equipped with a 100-mm single lens with focal length of 2,500 mm, and a mirror set at 45 degrees which directs the image onto a two- by three-meter surface on the floor. A motor rotates the lens 360 degrees so that the preferred exterior scene can be projected onto the camera floor from any direction. When photographing, Sato attaches a shutter to the lens and sets the focal length to about 10 mm. The lens has a maximum aperture of f/25, and shooting is done at f/250. The image is projected onto the entire piece of photographic paper on the floor in the darkness of the camera.

This camera obscura, turning up and vanishing again in various communities, delights people with its unique exterior. When they go inside, they are astonished by the clarity of the huge, life-sized image projected there. Placing themselves inside the structure, people viscerally experience the phenomenon of light forming images.

The Wandering Camera 2 series uses a smaller camera obscura – a tent. It is designed so that the image projected inside the camera, on the ground, is photographed by another camera. The structure is such that the image of the subject outside the camera obscura is superimposed on the image of the ground itself.

Whether gravel, rocks, flower petals that have floated down, weeds covering the soil, cracks in the concrete, seashells on the beach, or manholes in asphalt surfaces, the pattern on ground on which the camera-obscura tent is raised is clearly visible, highlighted, in these photographs. Its texture and materiality are reproduced in a high-definition image formed by the camera obscura with a high-resolution digital camera and then selecting an appropriate size and type of photographic paper. Here we see the “absolute nature of the print.”

The lens of Sato’s camera obscura is directed at the sun at dawn and dusk and also at corridors of cherry trees or houses when the cherries are in bloom, a boat beached on the Ishinomaki shore, Nakaze Marine Park, where the Statue of Liberty has lost a foot, and the Onnagawa Nuclear Power Plant. Scenes ordinary and extraordinary are superimposed on the soil that connects them, creating a metaphorical, abstract world.

Sato’s work questions the relationship between light and time. The key to the answers he discovers is his long-exposure style. In the 20th century, it became a given that the photograph would capture a moment. Sato’s work turns that assumption on its head. He makes us realize that a moment actually contains breadth. In as much as they all have breadth, they are all the same, whether it is a millionth of a second, a hundredth of a second, a second, a minute, or an hour. Harold Eugene Edgerton’s .30 Bullet Piercing an Apple was exposed for a millionth of a second, capturing the bullet in stasis. That image could not have been captured at a hundredth of a second. We can capture the motion of a person walking in a hundredth of a second, but not in an hour. What influences what can and cannot be recorded in a photograph through the presence of a certain breadth of time. On the other hand, the central premise of the photographic principle is that a photograph can capture nothing without light, and even when there is light, some things can and cannot be captured.

If we assume that something called a band of time actually exists, then Sato is extracting it, unraveling it, and presenting it to us in creative works known as photographs. He continues to create a world that can only exist in photography.


★1 From a lecture Sato Tokihiro gave at Indiana University Bloomington, in 2010.