Jacob Aue Sobol: I, Tokyo

In the introduction to his second book, I Tokyo photographer Jacob Aue Sobol writes, “I believe it is when pictures are unconsidered and irrational that they come to life; that they evolve from showing to being.” This sentence is sure to become oft-repeated in summing up the young Danish photographer’s process and the ethos that underpins his work to date. At just over A4 in size, I Tokyo is shot in black and white and is similarly proportioned to Sobol’s acclaimed debut book Sabine but it is presented in portrait rather than landscape format. It also marks a departure in that Sobol has upped the contrast, pushed his film and used a tritone printing process whereby combinations of two blacks and grey combine to give the work a harder edge and ambience. In the autobiographical Sabine, which was nominated for the Deutsche Brse Photography Prize in 2005, the softer mid-tones of the photographs reflected the intimacy of the photographer’s love relationship with Sabine who hailed from the east Greenland settlement where Sobol lived for two years whereas in I Tokyo high-key images capture the bustling Asian metropolis. Blocks of matt black create shadowed pools, which are offset by a tonal range reminiscent of the effect created by the photographic process solarization. Sobol’s portrait of Tokyo uses contrast not only in rendering the photographic surface, but also in the sequencing of subjects. In one double-page spread the gnarled skin of an old man with his hand to his chest is placed opposite that of a young Japanese woman. In another, water splashes between a person’s legs shot in the shower from the waist down and when placed opposite a portrait of a woman’s face behind water-splattered glass, the viewer is invited to do the work and to make connections across the space of the pages. Additionally, throughout the book the double-page spreads alternate between those that are comprised of a single, full-bleed image spanning the width of the page and two images, which have been artfully selected so that, at times, it is difficult to tell if the double-page spread is made up of one or two photographs. This blurring of boundaries within the physicality of the book captures a concurrent blending of the private and public spaces in which Sobol records his experiences of Tokyo. It also charts his journey through the streets and parks where he searched for “the narrow paths and the individual human presence in a city that felt both attractive and repulsive at the same time”. Furthermore, the evocation of these opposing responses sets up a subtle tension in I,Tokyo that suggests the contradictory nature of his experience as a foreigner living in a strange land with his Japanese girlfriend Sara. I, Tokyo opens with a quote from Japanese author Haruki Murakami and closes with a short text written by Sobol, acknowledgements and a short biography. These texts function as parentheses enclosing the free-form poetry of the monochrome photographs, which are threaded like a necklace of frames throughout the book. The use of his own words and not those of the many critics or academics, who are increasingly called upon to add or even give meaning to a photographer’s work, is also testament to Sobol’s ability to preserve a highly personal feel. Quirky images sit alongside the banal and with the help of Per Folker, who is picture-editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper Politiken, the sequence of 70 images hangs together impeccably. When Sobol captures a woman biting someone whose face is hidden but whose back is turned to the camera he reveals three parallel scratches. Are these signs of rough sex, self harm or something unrelated? On the

opposite page a young man stares directly back at the camera. In one image two rabbits are caught skipping diagonally across the frame towards the centre crease, in another a splattered rat lying in a pool of blood is set against a chequerboard of paving stones, and in a single page portrait a man in sunglasses with a cigarette in his mouth is photographed holding a black cat. Though Sobol’s work draws comparisons to both Anders Petersen and Daido Moriyama, the sensitivity of his approach shines through the work and sets him apart as one of a new generation of photographers with the ability to allow eroticism and danger to seep through his images without becoming sordid or clichd. He is a skilful observer of the minutiae embedded in the physicality of the buildings in the city as well as the surface of the human body and spirit. I, Tokyo is produced as a result of Sobol winning the prestigious juried Leica European Publishers Award 2008 and will be printed as co-editions by seven European publishers. If the growing popularity of Sabine, which is now out of print and highly collectable, is anything to go by it is highly likely that I, Tokyo will also prove popular – and deservedly so. With Christmas just around the corner, I, Tokyo would make a great present for the photo book enthusiast. Reviewed by: Miranda Gavin on Hotshoe International

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