Lighting up suburban Tokyo nights


What a concept: Imagine if you could see as clearly and in as much detail at midnight as you can at noon. The desire for night vision is an old one, but frankly the visions provided by new technologies have not impressed me — the best I’ve experienced were a set of cumbersome electric goggles that yielded greenish, ghostlike images. Much better are the serene nocturnal views in the new body of work by Japanese photographer Tomoyuki Sakaguchi.

Now showing at the Guardian Garden Gallery in Ginza, the exhibition, titled “Home,” comprises 26 pictures from Sakaguchi’s ongoing experiments with digital-camera time exposures. The pictures were shot during the early hours of the morning in residential neighborhoods in and around Tokyo. Sakaguchi set the exposures at 30 seconds, and chose mundane subjects — the compact (some would say ugly) prefabricated homes inhabited by typical middle-class families, and their little driveways and gardens. The results, though, are hardly mundane; they are, actually, nothing short of fascinating.

“I had done a lot of central Tokyo photographs in the past, skyscrapers and trains,” says Sakaguchi, “and so I wanted to try a different location. I went to normal homes and photographed them at night. When I saw the results I was surprised, I felt as if I was looking at another world.”

At first glance, the nature of these pictures may well escape the viewer’s attention. But look more closely, and you begin to discern subtle, gradient hues in the tint of automobile glass, spookily glowing LED lights, weird highlights in the flowering bushes and trees.

Of all things, the shadows most reveal Sakaguchi’s process. Instead of emanating from the sun overhead, at night the light shines from sources — street lamps, home exterior lighting, vending machines — that have varying positions and color temperatures. Shadows are not where we expect them to be, which helps lend these images an atmosphere that is part movie set, part maquette.

Sakaguchi’s cars, for instance, look rubbery and small, as if they are toys. The skies meanwhile are quiet, sometimes tinged with pale shades of blue, yellow or white. Grass and trees appear rich in color and deep with texture. There is a rigid utilitarian sameness in the neighborhoods Sakaguchi visited while making the pictures, but by sneaking up on the houses at night, he has captured them looking relaxed, vulnerable. He has cast residential Tokyo in a perfectly complimentary light — and in an mysterious way, it almost looks beautiful.

The 36-year-old Sakaguchi, who is a three-time finalist for the revered Hitotsubo photography competition, says his focus evolved while he was working on this new series. Initially, it seems, he was interested in utility poles and street signs, then gardens and bushes, finally houses and cars.

What makes Sakaguchi a good, even great photographer is his gift for bringing the viewer a new perspective on the everyday. Like veteran lensman Daido Moriyama, whose blurred and grainy black-and-white studies make Tokyo look gritty, or Takashi Homma, whose cold flat color photographs portray the city’s suburbs as bleak and inhuman, Sakaguchi has brought us a unique way of looking at Tokyo environments.

The show also includes a five-minute video which sees Sakaguchi’s car’s lights turning on and off (and really this could have been left out); along with a video slide show featuring subjects similar to those found in the prints.