Tom Sandberg

February 22, 2019

 “An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties.”

By Morten Andenæs 

I think about this line from Djuna Barnes’s most famous novel,Nightwood, on a plane above the clouds, on my way to see an exhibition of Tom Sandberg’s vintage prints at Nils Stærk Gallery in Copenhagen. An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties seems to sum up much of what happens when I see one of his photographs, whether in my mind’s eye or in real life. The phrase describes the space of the image not as certainty, but as an experience situated beyond the all-too-familiar space of uncertainty—a huge distinction.

I am seated next to the wing. Every time my eye strays beyond the reinforced window that separates me from death, I see, for all intents and purposes, any number of Sandberg photographs; the jet engines as devouring faces or hollow eyes, the wing at an angle to the horizon. The plane changes course and the layers of accumulated clouds stretch toward a horizon that seems to stay at the same distance, no matter how fast, or in which direction, we travel.

Sandberg’s photographs have always implicated me as their viewer. Their gravitational force is like that of a black hole. They draw me in and leave me breathless, doomed, for example, never to see the horizon again. I’ve always liked that feeling, though, have craved to be like the young boy standing on a precipice in one the photographs from his 2007 exhibition at MOMA PS1. To come upon these photographs is to risk disintegration, to risk heartbreak and loneliness. They respond intuitively to a deep-seated, desperate yearning in me to be seen.

I am convinced that Sandberg had an innate understanding of this mechanism. His photographs could act the part of a benevolent mother, her arms extended. Each time they cast their attention upon us, it was as if we were seen for the first time. But, just as quickly, a cloud could pass up above, covering the sun that shone just moments earlier and leaving us stranded in the shadows, turned away absolutely by a dismissive father.

Photographs obviously do not see us. They do not reject or affirm. But some of us, myself included, are prone to projecting these characteristics on to them. The body of work that Sandberg has left behind probes these needs that nag at so many of us.

Eleven thousand feet above ground, travelling at about five hundred kilometres an hour, and with an outside temperature of -55℃ degrees, I glance briefly at my phone, which displays the press photographs sent to me by the gallery. I ask the attendant for a coffee; her voice is hushed, gentle. The plane makes a pleasant buzzing sound even though I am seated just a few metres away from its engines. For the most part, the possibility of utter destruction and chaos eludes me as I succumb to the knowledge and illusion that flying is the safest form of transport. I have always thought of Sandberg’s photographs as sublime. They are seemingly unmediated; we enter their illusory space, become participants, and risk something when we agree to let ourselves be touched by them. But looking at these pictures on my phone, I had an inkling that what I would see upon landing was something more intimate, having more to do with his presence than mine. They were beautiful, not sublime.

We need that. Beauty, that is. There is safety in it.

Beauty invites us to look, to scour the scene, to enjoy. One thing I have learned over the last five years is that not everything has to be heart-wrenching and lead to asphyxiation and destruction. Sometimes beauty is simply about presence, about being in the world and not being overwhelmed, not being constantly afraid of losing one’s grip. Because if our condition is to always be face-to-face with oblivion, it is also to brush up against presence.
Something and nothing coexist. Love is the precondition for heartbreak. Disintegration is contingent upon wholeness. Separation can only follow a sustained period of unity.

As far as Sandberg exhibitions go, this is one of the most stringent, sober, and understated ones I’ve seen. It contains the familiar cloudscapes and cloud formations. There are women in various guises and silhouettes filtered through layers of what was once transparent material that over time has become opaque and dirty. There is the well-known image of an out-of-focus face, tightly cropped to reveal only what appears to be sunglasses, and, hung in a sequence by themselves on one wall, four photographs of lingering smoke, as if someone just left the scene.

This is no museum show; it is a no-nonsense exhibition presented at a renowned private gallery. Though the artist needs little introduction in Norway, his work is still being discovered by an international audience—and exhibitions like this one are a step in the right direction. Though some of the work was familiar to me, other pictures I had never seen before; the exhibition had me longing for more. I take that to be a good thing and hope this show is the first of many in which the artist’s playful, lonely, small rarities and asides add to the impressive collection of iconic, autonomous imagery many of us know and revere.

Today there is little photographic work with a nerve similar to Sandberg’s. He came of age in the aftermath of a generation that believed in the sanctimony of the black-and-white photograph and entered the field at the same time as the Pictures generation. Sandberg’s work doesn’t fit into either of these categories and is perhaps more at home alongside music than anywhere else. The complexity of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres (1977) and the brooding melancholy of Henryck Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 (commonly known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, also 1977)spring to mind, as does the reverent beauty of Talk Talk’s 1988 record Spirit of Eden and Nick Cave’s devilish 2003 album Nocturama. Or, given its propensity for existential anguish and bliss, it seems natural to mention Sandberg’s work in the same breath as filmmakers Terence Malick and Krzysztof Kieślowski, to name just a few.

Unlike most of the Sandberg photographs displayed in the last fifteen years, the prints in this exhibition were made by his hand, not by one of his trusted printers in Oslo or Paris. They were made in the dank darkroom in the basement of his house at Ekely in Oslo, an artist colony situated on Edvard Munch’s former estate. I remember that darkroom, poorly ventilated and situated next to a cellar he once dreamt of turning into a music studio. Thwarted dreams, indeed.

I get on a plane to visit another city in order to see sixteen small black-and-white photographs for the same reason I then hop on a bus and go directly to Statens Museum for Kunst to see the paintings of Wilhelm Hammershøi, which I have ever only experienced in books. I want the face-to-face experience with that particular aura that the authentic object emanates. In the case of a photograph, that particular object is the vintage print.

Photography is mediation, and in these oh-so-mediated lives of ours it could be argued that the attempt to force us to see pictures “firsthand” is a cynical ploy to make the photograph more of an authentic object than it is. Yet there is something to be said for seeing something for oneself, for standing face-to-face with the physical image and the potential smell of fixer. In a world where we watch movies made with million-dollar technology in low resolution on our phones, there is something to be said for getting as close as possible, to not accept the copy, the file, or the screen simply because it’s good enough. Something does get lost on the way, in translation. The tonality of a daguerreotype seen up close is vastly different than that of a JPEG endlessly compressed.

I turn to some of the skyscapes and photographs of clouds. I lose myself in the minutiae, in the subtle and ever-expanding range of grays Sandberg was able to reproduce. Rather than being transported to the scene in question, weightless and disembodied, as happened often with his large-format prints, these small pictures bring me into his world, to that damp basement of his where the music blared and his need to make these things was so pressing. Why keep re-presenting the world in order to look at it anew? Why call forth these images (in Norwegian, the words for the chemical process of developing a picture are frem kalle)? Why tease these pictures out from the depths of reality?

I look across the room again to the four pictures hung side-by-side, neatly matted and framed, as is everything in this exhibition. Four photographs of smoke caught in mid-air. In one, the smoke seems to come up at us from below, like a hand asking us to take it in ours. Four photographs of cigarette smoke curling up in front of us, frozen against that infinite dark grey that lingers at the back of so many of his photographs, serving as a state of uncertainty, a reminder that one day, at some point, all will be black … just not today, here, now.

There must be hundreds, even thousands of online forums in which people upload, compare, and comment on photographs of smoke. The subject lends itself to being photographed; its ephemeral nature and constant shape-shifting, like that of clouds, ensures there can never be two photographs quite the same. An easy subject, then, and surely one that many capital-A artists would avoid, or at any rate bolster with theory, because it seems too simple, too seductive.

Luckily for us, Tom was never afraid of brushing up against what others would consider cliché. Without explicitly stating it, his works are testament to a conviction that whatever trope he was working with at the moment—be it a wilting flower, smoke, clouds, or the female body—would never be photographed and interpreted in exactly the way he did because there was no one quite like him. It’s a simple fact, too easily overlooked.

There’s an obvious connection between the smoke and the clouds and the ways in which both relate to the fleeting nature of the moments we associate with so many of his works. And yet, more than anything, those four simple photographs on display at Nils Stærk whisper to me about presence. Many who read this will know the Sandberg photograph of smoke seemingly emanating from what appears to be a book or folder. It’s a large, iconic image that lends itself to many interpretations, uses, and experiences. But at Nils Stærk all we get is the smoke and that dense, ash-like background. I imagine the artist sitting there, seeing his own smoke caught in the light. Inhale, exhale. Photographs about presence and breath, about pleasure, the kind that hurts just slightly, and self-preservation and perpetuation. They are simple, born out of a curiosity to see what happens when the world is photographed (to quote Garry Winogrand), what kind of meanings are generated, which kind of experiences. Seen in conjunction with the views from the airplane, with the silhouettes or the black puddles for which he is famed, the pictures of smoke offer a burgeoning grammar of loneliness. It is a solitary act, this kind of smoking, something I’ve thought about every day since I quit four years ago. The pleasure taken in the way the smoke curls around, envelops the smoker and then fades away. I can’t help but think as well that these are pictures about a certain kind of helplessness, the helplessness of someone who even in tiny moments cannot lay the camera down and just be, there, here, content. This serves also to make them about yearning, about that unidentifiable itch in the minds of self-conscious beings. The smoke beckons us, whispers to us to behold it before it’s gone, again. Recently, writing in another context about a painting that struck me as photographic, I wondered if photography could ever be touching in the literal sense that painting can be. Perhaps here, with the artist’s breath made visible by the smoke that once filled his lungs, I have the beginning of an answer.

Breath as presence. The thought prods me to look again at the other works on display. I take in the female figures. One is caught through the mesh of a curtain. Her breasts and mouth, her upward thrust and silent scream, has me wondering if it is pain or relief she’s experiencing, or if she simply wishes to be held. Next to her the outline of a woman’s nose is seen from the seat behind her on the plane, a plaster cast of the everyday. Next to her again, hidden by the curtain of her bangs, is what I must assume is a face, her nose barely visible. I long for her to look up and reciprocate, but this is a photograph, still, frozen, until one day it simply fades from view.

I pass by the clouds once again. I draw near, take in details the JPEG files on my computer surely miss. I let me eyes caress the chemically produced surfaces, the images existing, lodged and fixed inside the paper’s emulsion, developed by the magical chemical process. Reality quoted, as John Berger would have it, for several lifetimes. In front of one of these pictures of clouds small dark spots reveal themselves to me and have me standing face-to-face with him, the artist. Poorly retouched spots, intended to eradicate the blanks created by dust from the artist’s surroundings and trick the eye into an experience of seamlessness, become instead small cries for attention, for help. I think of something a friend of mine said recently, about a printed text that contained a few spelling errors, that its imperfections were charming, how they created an experience removed from the machinery of rationalism. I wasn’t quite sure then, but here, now, I find myself in tacit agreement.

As I hurry through the non-space of the departure hall, the site of many Sandberg photographs, I think about how many situations, objects, and gestures he lifted from our surroundings and transformed into events. When I am finally seated in 8A, I turn to my left and look out the window. My fingers trace the oval outline of the windowsill. I notice the small crystals attached to the outside pane. Condensation builds up between the inner and outer glass, making whatever is outside the window blurry. I envision the photograph Tom made that a close friend recently reminded me of. It is her favourite photograph by him, she said; it features  the outline of a person seen looming through just such drops of water, seen from what could be the inside of a car.

In his sublime, iconic photographs, Sandberg removed himself sufficiently, handing the scene over to us so as to allow our complete identification with it and to assume his point of view. But there, in the prints at Nils Stærk, the artist is present in the small retouched bits, in the smoke that for a few moments took residence in his lungs. He is there, whispering to us from beyond the veil, beyond the darkroom, and beyond petty mortal existence. In those small, unassuming prints there is something self-involved, therapeutic, sketch-like, and nervous, something playful and wistful, something simple, motivated perhaps by nothing more than the need to keep going, to somehow see oneself reflected in, or part of, the world out there.

Tom Sandberg, Untitled. Installation view, Nils Stærk. Photo: Malle Madsen.