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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review Tom Sandberg: Photographs Photographs by Tom Sandberg Reviewed by Blake Andrews “The Norwegian photographer Tom Sandberg was a minimalist. The term describes his photographs, and also his output..."
Tom Sandberg: Photographs
Photographs by Tom Sandberg

Aperture, New York, 2022. 224 pp., 9½x11½".

The Norwegian photographer Tom Sandberg was a minimalist. The term describes his photographs, and also his output. He produced few monographs during his lifetime before passing away in 2014 at the tender age of 61. The best known of these is probably Photographs 1989-2006, the exhibition catalog which accompanied his retrospective at MoMA P.S. 1 in 2007. It was a handsome production, but it quickly fell out of print and did not widely circulate. His work appeared in a handful of other periodicals and regional publications. These helped to nourish and sustain his reputation in Norway, where he is well-regarded in photo circles. But outside of Europe, and especially in the United States, Tom Sandberg has received scant attention to date.

A new publication from Aperture aims to address the oversight. Entitled simply Tom Sandberg: Photographs, it collects a variety of his best photographs from 1980 to 2010, with a focus on the late 90s and early 2000s. Almost the entirety of the old P.S. 1 catalog is included, plus much more. Hoping to jumpstart his American reputation in one fell swoop, the monograph confers star treatment with a sturdy clothbound design, gorgeous duotones on luster paper, two critical essays and interview excerpts thrown in for good measure. For those looking to catch up on the Norwegian master with one purchase, this is the book.

I’ve called Sandberg a minimalist, but he was more than that. He was one of those obsessive shutterbugs who carried his camera everywhere, always at the ready. A potential photograph could be found in any subject at any time. It might be a view out the airplane window, a child seen endwise, a hand on a table or waves rippling a watery surface. Wherever he went he remained available and wherever his eyes alighted, his mind would commence the conversion into potential photos. His exclusive adoption of monochrome was a help, pre-filtering the real world into abstraction. But that was merely a starting point. Sandberg had an uncanny knack for boiling down the visual essence of any subject. He sought vantage points which would compress and formalize. To borrow a phrase from his one-time mentor Minor White, he photographed things not only for what they were but for what else they were.

These traits might roughly describe the high modernist formalism practiced by countless mid-century photographers. Minor White was merely one of many, along with Harry Callahan, Ray Metzker, Aaron Siskind, Paul Caponigro and others, all fresh on the heels of f/64 predecessors Weston, Cunningham, et al. Sandberg’s photographs embody a similar cool remove, but his carry an icy blast of Scandinavian wit. His photos are how Pepper No. 30 might look if grown in a hydroponic lab with chemical fertilizer: clarified, aglow, and somewhat sterile. Sandberg’s quiet photograph of an airborne soap bubble is from the same mad scientist lab, an alien vision. One gets the sense of an observer popping down to Earth’s surface for the first time. Hmm, what have we here?

Sandberg may have been open to anything, but he did favor some subjects above others. Open spaces and natural forms were recurrent themes. The book recirculates a solid dose of clouds, mountains and open water. On occasion, his fascination with the natural world would extend to human bodies, and the book is spiced with nudes and faces too (including that of another famous minimalist, John Cage). Some photos of humans expand their frames to include surrounding elements, and a few might even qualify as street shots, with background glimpses of sidewalk, shadow and pedestrian flow. Not that anyone would call Sandberg a street photographer, or an expressionist, or…? No label quite fits. He seemed content to make his own way, poking a toe into whatever genre appealed at the time, but never adopting any formal school. “Almost from the very beginning, Sandberg’s aesthetic sensibility was fully formed,” writes Bob Nickas, conferring a rather timeless, universal quality upon his work.

With over 120 images, Tom Sandberg will appeal to photo lovers of all stripes, but especially those who are new to Sandberg’s work. It’s a joy to browse, hitting the sweet spot between retrospective and entry point. Unfortunately, the book does not venture much beyond his images. If intended to introduce him to a wide audience, it might be nice to include a bio, CD, timeline, bibliography, or some other concrete facts. There is not much on those fronts, no details about his family, where or how he lived or even the cause of death. “I had a pretty tricky upbringing with several nervous breakdowns before the age of twelve,” he reveals in the Torunn Liven interview, “Photography clearly became a way of survival for me.” A potential opening. But the text says nothing further, and moves on to other topics. Even the index of captions is hazy, a random list of dates and inferences, with most photos labeled “Untitled”, all bound by a general disclaimer: “Due to the nature of the Tom Sandberg collection, the exact dates of some of the works may be subject to variation.” Hmm, in other words his archives are a mess. That’s fine, and perhaps expected. But wouldn’t a handsome eponymous monograph be just the chance to straighten things up?

That’s not to say the book isn’t helpful. Reading between the lines of essays by Pico Iyer and Bob Nickas we can pick out details here and there. He spent time in Arizona, England, Paris and Berlin, apparently developing formative experiences in each place. He studied with a variety of big names including John Blakemore, Thomas Joshua Cooper and Paul Hill, in addition to Minor White. Sandberg was instrumental in the 1970s photo scene in Norway, helping initiate a gallery and kick-starting the national consciousness. One gets the sense of a mover and shaker, a community force of sorts. But this is merely a vague impression, poorly fleshed out. Much about him remains hidden, and perhaps that was his preference. Fortunately, his archive is now better publicized. And his photographs speak quite loudly.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at