Enigmas in plain sight: ​the photography of ​Tom Sandberg

The attentive gaze of the late Norwegian ​artist produced images of quiet but resonant mystery

In Japan, where I’ve made my home for 33 years, I often see people bowing to a telephone as they speak into the receiver. Ceremonies are held in temples every year for sewing needles that have given themselves up to make a kimono. My Japanese wife, while growing up in Kyoto, was taught to apologise to a table if she kicked it in a fit of six-year-old pique. Nothing, in short, is unworthy of the humbled reverence we call attention. Objects have lives and the divisions we draw between animate and inanimate are a human-made creation; that’s one reason why the moon in Japan is offered the same honorific suffix as the emperor.

Untitled, 1997.
  • Untitled, 1997.

Much of that spirit comes back to me whenever I spend time with the work of Tom Sandberg. The Norwegian who pioneered photography in Scandinavia was always, it seems, training his lens on the objects that we overlook: not the people enjoying lunch, but the paper bag beside them, so vivid we can almost hear it crinkle. Not a jet cutting through the heavens, but the emptiness that surrounds it. There are vehicles – cars, planes, and buses – in much of his work and yet the images are about movement of a subtler kind: misty and precise as smoke rising from a stick of incense, they focus not on the cars outside but on the way a wind stirs a filmy curtain and, maybe in so doing, stirs us.

Untitled, 1987.
  • Untitled, 1987.

This mix of specificity and absence is deepened by the fact that, though he was granted the honour of a solo show at New York’s MoMA PS1 in 2007, Sandberg liked to call his younger self a “small gangster from Norway”. In video interviews, I see a grizzled, watchful figure, contained and serene in the snow as he waits to find images with his pre-digital Pentax.

He organised happenings on the Oslo music scene and, in his youth, chose to sustain himself on donations of food from friends who worked in restaurants. In the early 1970s, he earned money as an assistant dogcatcher and loading frozen pig carcasses on to trucks. At that same time – photography not being regarded as much of an art in Norway – he began studying the craft at Trent Polytechnic in England, where he encountered an old master, Minor White, who produced large-scale, black-and-white analogue evocations of light.

Untitled, 2003.
  • Untitled, 2003.

Much like his mentor, Sandberg grew fluent in the art of suggestion. His pieces are mostly untitled. They sit calmly in the midst of all they do not disclose. Thus, very often, they take us beyond the eye to somewhere deeper inside. I don’t know what to make of the reflections of all those faces in a bus and when I look at his clouds swirling against blackness, smoke gets 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 with what we cannot hope to fathom. Everywhere in the world we take for granted, Sandberg might be pointing out, are enigmas as open as that paper bag. “I photograph just about everything,” he told the BBC in 2006. He even took his camera with him when he went shopping.

Untitled, 1984.
  • Untitled, 1984.

Photography, he also said, is “a complex dialogue between shades of grey”. He laboured long and hard, for more than 40 years, to find a thousand shades of “grey and matte”, working with the same type of film and developer throughout. In the process, he often gave us a universe in which there seems to be no colour at all.

© Pico Iyer

• Tom Sandberg: Photographs is published by Aperture (£60)


Pico Iyer

The GuardianTramp

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