Bladerunner Tokyo (in Large-Format Photography)

The future began a long time ago in Tokyo...

I am fascinated by life in metropolitan areas, surrounded by millions of other people... I love neon signs and public video screens. AND rooftops. Everywhere. Concrete is romantic and beautiful to me.


Ginza in the rain

Isolation in a crowded place, aglow with neon...

I went to Tokyo in the summer of 2008 for three weeks to take pictures of "the future". What I found was even more impressive. The future began a long time ago in Tokyo, and so the whole city has a face, there has been so much organic growth - there is no master plan, the city has been shaped by individuals' desires. The result is a structure that seems alive, even if you do not see the inhabitants, as usually the case with long-exposure photography (see this set, make sure to click-thru to highest resolution).



I do Large Format Photography, currently on a Sinar P2 8x10 (basically I scouted locations on foot during the day, and then , and then brought my camera in the evening to make four pictures max, while the "blue hour" lasts).



Various views of the Rainbow Bridge

My Vision is to create a preview of our life in the future. Is it possible to efficiently and happily live together in a confined space for a large number of people? I say yes. I assume there are two ways of doing this – the right way and the wrong one. Carefully planned High Rise Apartment buildings versus makeshift slums. Hong Kong versus Mexico City.


View from Shinagawa Prince East Tower 17F (fragment)

I am most interested in density. My aspiration is to show at least a 1000 people or their traces on every picture. Be it the illuminated windows of their apartments, the light streaks of their vehicles or their clothes hung out of windows for drying. Even if you do not see people directly, you can see their footprint on the urban environment. An organism that is alive and breathing.



If one were to print these pictures at a scale of 2x3 meters, one would find a different story in every square centimetre. The images should provoke interest on first sight, through colour, shape and proportions. But even if you examine them more intensively, you should never be bored.


Tokyo rooftop (fragment)

Tokyo is the largest urban aggregation in the world. But despite this fact the city is safe and efficient. All religions and philosophies can be pursued freely. Because of the sheer mass of people, no one has to do anything alone, everybody can find his group of peers. Public and private transport is ubiquitous. Like futuristic snakes the roads and railway tracks wind through high rise canyons:


View from the 10th floor of a fire escape, and still there are elevated roads winding around... Right: expressway in Shanghai

The city resembles a jungle in principle.

There is the shrub layer, consisting of millions of 1-3 story buildings, then there is the canopy made of 4-12 story buildings and the emergent layer, towering high above the rest, represented by skyscrapers. Leaves and branches are mimicked by the millions of air conditioners and antennas on the rooftops. Everything is interconnected through a liana meshwork, consisting of roads, railway tracks, stairs, pedestrian overpasses, elevators and escalators.


Shinjuku view from a fireescape 6F near Yoyogi Station

Every kind of architectural style and period is represented, all stages of weathering can be found. Public as well as private buildings are cared for and used constantly. If something breaks, it will be replaced or repaired. Investments have a long lifespan. This is another aspect of the organic appearance of the city.


View from Tokyo Shiodome Rooftop


Zoom-in on a rooftop detail

The further you look into the image, the more windows can be seen...

The total might of this organism is what I want to portray with my pictures. To achieve this I climbed countless fire escapes in Tokyo and tried to capture the complete force of nature. The photos are not about single buildings, they are about the completeness of the urban jungle. All elements have the same importance, and the further you look into the image, the more windows can be seen per square centimetre. I tried to achieve a three dimensional effect, which is supported by the sheer size of the printouts. The images are like a virtual window.


Shinagawa Rooftop View

Closer view... more is revealed -



The pictures were shot mainly in twilight. The magic hour, where the houses are shining as bright as the residual daylight in the sky and the colourful neon signs melt with the green-blue of the beginning night. For me this is the most beautiful colour theme a city can offer.



I am looking for the city from Blade Runner... All my romantic cyberpunk dreams have been fulfilled in Tokyo. I wish I could have stayed even longer.


Truly a romantic spot in Tokyo!
all images copyright, and by exclusive permission of Thomas Birke


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