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Even at its origins photography abstracted. Early daguerreotypes, their subjects blurred and grainy, maintain an ethereal melancholy that transcends the strict representation intended by their scientific makers.  Eadweard Muybridge's famous motion studies from the 1800's - a group of photos meant to be strictly representational to accomplish their scientific purposes - have acquired a deeper abstract meaning for contemporary viewers, their repeated representations amongst the most popular in today's finest photographic galleries.  Of course, at its earliest, photographic abstraction was more a matter of viewer impression than artistic intention.  Yet by the early 20th century that had changed.  Artists as diverse as Alfred Stieglitz and Man Ray demonstrated photography's emotional range in work that often and purposely co-opted painting's traditional subject vocabulary.  No longer were the emotional reactions of art photography's gathering audience a matter of chance; images were created, and abstracted, to produce aesthetics.


Yuko Sato works in that tradition. A commercial photographer by trade, Sato's work is necessarily concerned with obtaining the strictest and most attractive representations possible, and her triptychs consist of numerous photos taken within that skilled discipline.  It is clear that Sato's triptychs transcend their representational parts.  In effect, they are more than the sum of their images; like sentences, they contain a series of signifiers that create an overall impression quite separate from the independent images, or words.


Nevertheless, the triptychs are about emotions; strict representation and linguistic convention are insufficient for those ends.  Obviously, Sato's titles hint at her purposes.  "Sorrow", for example, is a deeply affecting set of images that are not, in themselves, deeply affecting.  Yet they produce something quite extraordinary in the viewer.


The means are interesting.  At the center of the triptych is a tension-free image of oil on water, its blues and blacks completely without line or structure, relaxed and even tired.  It would be unremarkable but for what surrounds it.  On one side Sato has placed a set of hands deeply enmeshed in the dough, rolling and twisting. The hands are illuminated in the candlelit yellows and browns of the Dutch Renaissance masters, removing any sense that the image abstracts a notion of work (the sense that would have been produced in fluorescent white, for example).  Instead, it suggests something deeper - perhaps futility or frustration at the very idea of work.  Whatever the interpretation, it is impossible to remove it from the center image, as the tension eases into the uncomposed oil.
On the other side, Sato has placed an extremely formal - even commercial - image of a foot massage.  Pinpoint tension rises out of the image, from a thumb pressed into a foot and through the arm which dominates the middle of it.  In the background, the prone body of the foot's owner is a mere blur, almost irrelevant, an accessory to the obvious pain that dominates the image.  Again, the counterpoint to the oil is powerful; but so is the counterpoint to the hands in the other image.  Here, the tension is precise, embodied in line.  In the other images, color enhances or dissolves the tension.


For the viewer, the three images take on personal meaning, shifting between each other, tension to release and back.  Sato's title - "Sorrow" - is very personal.  Indeed, the entire triptych series reflects upon her life in 
Shanghai.  Others may see the images and find an entirely different set of meanings, in spite of the highly suggestive title.  It is, in fact, a triumph of Sato's highly formalized photographic conventions that such a range of meanings is possible.  Though very new, Sato's triptychs work within the abstract traditions and histories of art photography.

Review by Adam Minter

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