In Japan, where I have lived for 33 years, I often see people bowing in front of a telephone as they speak into the handset. Ceremonies are held every year in temples for the sewing needles that are given to make a kimono. My Japanese wife, growing up in Kyoto, learned to apologize to a table if she kicked it in a fit of six-year-old spite. Nothing, in short, is unworthy of the humble reverence which we call attention to. Objects have lives and the divisions we draw between the animate and the inanimate are a human creation; this is one of the reasons why the moon in Japan is offered the same honorific suffix as the emperor.
Much of that spirit comes back to me whenever I dedicate time to the work of Tom Sandberg. The Norwegian, a pioneer of photography in Scandinavia, has always, it seems, aimed his lens at the objects we forget: not the people having lunch, but the paper bag next to them, so vivid that you can almost hear it crumple. Not a jet cutting the sky, but the void that surrounds it. There are vehicles – cars, planes and buses – in much of his work and yet the images speak of movement of a more subtle nature: hazy and precise like smoke rising from a stick. of incense, they focus not on the cars outside but on how a wind stirs a vaporous curtain and, perhaps in doing so, stirs us.
This mixture of specificity and absence is reinforced by the fact that, although he had the honor of a solo exhibition at MoMA PS1 in New York in 2007, Sandberg liked to call himself a “little gangster of Norway”. In the video interviews, I see a grizzled figure, watchful, contained and serene in the snow waiting to find footage with his pre-digital Pentax.
He hosted events in Oslo’s music scene, and in his youth chose to support himself through food donations from friends who worked in restaurants. In the early 1970s, he earned money as an assistant dog catcher and loaded frozen pig carcasses onto trucks. Around the same time – photography not being considered an art in Norway – he began to study the craft at Trent Polytechnic in England, where he met an old master, Minor White, who produced analog images in large scale black and white. evocations of light.
Like his mentor, Sandberg became familiar with the art of suggestion. His pieces are mostly untitled. They sit quietly in the middle of everything they don’t divulge. So very often they take us beyond the eye to somewhere deeper within. I don’t know what to make of the reflections of all those faces on a bus and when I look at its swirling clouds in the dark, smoke rises in my eyes. As with classic pen and ink drawings, these images invite us to complete the picture ourselves – or perhaps they simply ask us to live uncomplainingly about what we cannot hope to understand. Everywhere in the world we take for granted, Sandberg might point out, are puzzles as open-ended as this paper bag. “I photograph just about everything,” he told the BBC in 2006. He even took his camera with him when he went shopping.
Photography, he also says, is “a complex dialogue between shades of gray”. He worked hard and long, for more than 40 years, to find a thousand shades of “grey and matte”, working with the same type of film and developer everywhere. In the process, he has often given us a universe in which there seems to be no color at all.
© Pico Iyer