Akira Sato is the last word in a photographic style that Japan called its own in the 1960s—exotic, enigmatic and at the same time highly stylised. Sato was once a relatively obscure fashion photographer but is now highly prized by collectors drawn to his unsettling oeuvre. Born in Tokyo in 1930, he started out as a student of economics at Yokohama National University but was drawn to the photography he found in Life magazine. After graduating in 1953, he made the leap to fashion photography and developed his characteristic style meshing experimentation with fashion.
In 1957, he took part in a seminal exhibition, Junin no me (Eyes of Ten), which brought together a group of artists destined to become the cutting edge of Japan’s photographic fraternity, among them Yasuhiro Ishimoto, whose eerie street portraits still resonate, and Toyoko Tokiwa, known for her stark photographs of red light districts. The Vivo collective sprang out of this exhibition, a short-lived but highly influential group that left its mark on a whole generation of Japanese photographers, including Daido Moriyama, whose work explores the collapse of Japanese values, and the prolific Nobuyoshi Araki, known for an unabashedly erotic style.
Sato had a series of one-man shows starting in 1961, in which he specialised in black-and-white photographs of women, their faces shot in uncompromising close- up. “In the 1960s, Sato reacted against the narrative photography in vogue at the time and sought to emphasise the psychological subtlety of his subjects by using unconventional methods and materials for his work,” says a spokesman for Tokyo’s Take Ninagawa gallery, which will be presenting the work at Art Basel. “This gives the images a kind of montage-like composition where different elements are juxtaposed in ways that are not commonly seen in daily life.
Our project for Art Basel in Hong Kong focuses on the role of abstraction as visual language. His black-and-white photograph shows a pyramidal structure in the landscape juxtaposed against a close-up of a young woman’s profile, so that the figure becomes an abstraction in itself.”
Text by Peter Shadbolt; Images courtesy of the artist and Take Ninagawa, Tokyo.