Photography is becoming an increasingly advanced tool for architects, who often stitch together site images into sophisticated, high-dynamic-range photo-composites in an attempt to capture the essence of a place. But conventional imaging methods pale in comparison to the work of Tokihiro Sato, a Japanese photographer whose images convey a deep and hyper-realistic physicality. Based on early studies in sculpture, Sato became interested in the interplay of 3D structures and light. In the 1980s, he began experimenting with the use of penlights and mirrors in time-lapse photography. The resulting images record points, lines, and curvilinear traces of illumination made by Sato’s journey through physical spaces in front of the camera lens.
Sato also uses an innovative approach called compound pinhole photography, in which he captures multiple simultaneous images of places using custom-built pinhole camera arrays. A third technique he employs is wandering camera, which uses a portable tent as a camera obscura. Sato visits various sites and captures images with this mobile structure by projecting the images on the ground upon which the structure sits. Sato then records the camera's view of the groundscape with an analog 8-inch-by-10-inch camera—creating a composite photograph that reproduces the horizon and ground surface simultaneously. In these images, the camera becomes architecture and vice versa, creating spaces that embody multiple dimensions of the visual experience.
In today’s era of digital snapshots and endless manipulation by photo-editing software, it is easy to forget the potency of physicality. Sato’s compelling experiments represent powerful intersections between space and image, offering novel approaches to capturing the genius loci. “Sometimes I think, ‘I want to photograph this spot,'” Sato says in his recent monograph, Presence or Absence. “But when I pick up my camera, peer through the viewfinder, and press the shutter, something seems to slip away. … What I am after is not a rectangular fragment but the atmosphere of a place.”
Sato’s exhibition “Presence or Absence” is on display at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography through July 13.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.