Born in 1948, Hiroshi Sugimoto recalls his first photographs as ones he took whilst trainspotting at the age of 9. Now 70, he is a multi-hyphenate visual artist, with his practice spanning photography, architecture, and performing arts. Discussing his practice in a studio visit with Christie’s, he states how “the most advanced evolution of life is a human brain… that’s why I want to go back to the point where humans gained consciousness.” It is then no surprise how the contextual basis of his most renowned medium, photography, is intimately influenced by the writings of Marcel Duchamp, and by extension the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. As such, his acclaim for photography finds itself on par with that of the conceptual and philosophical attributes of his works.
Sugimoto uses a 19th century style 8x10 large format camera, black-and-white film, and extremely long exposures. He projects notions pertaining to his philosophical curiosities, closely affiliated to that of the nature of time. Working in traditional wet darkrooms, he constructs absolute prints on double-weight gelatin silver paper. Together with themes of the present, individual memories, the past and apprehensions of the future, Sugimoto’s photographs defy the norms of what we anticipate with generic quick snapshots. They evoke a certain sense of ephemerality that come attached with vibes of infinite immeasurability.
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s works can be found in major collections internationally, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Mori Art Museum, Tate Gallery, and MoMA, New York. He has showcased thrice at the Biennale of Sydney, with photographs having exceptional receptions at auction houses; they consistently close above their high estimates, with a high auction record of USD $2 million at Christie’s in 2007.
Sugimoto takes the name ‘In Praise of Shadows’ from an essay by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki who had a strong disdain for how modern civilization had been wrought by artificial light. Sugimoto observed the ‘life of a candle’ by capturing their slow burning process over several hours with his camera’s slow shutter speed. He states how “domesticating fire marks humankind’s ascendency over other species”, highlighting how civilization has illuminated the night with flames for tens of thousands of years. This series explores a candle’s life and how it varied for Sugimoto, and continues to vary for rest of the world, on any given night.
What viewers are in fact seeing in his ‘Theater’ series are that of full-length features, with Sugimoto’s film exposed over the movie’s elapsed time and the only source of light from the theater’s running projector. In 1976, 28-year-old Sugimoto smuggled his large-format camera into the rundown St. Marks Cinema in Manhattan’s East Village, setting it up at the back of the cinema.
He had a clear vision that the movie screen would appear on the developed product as a white rectangle, predicting its illumination over the entire theater. This accurate prediction gave him exactly what he wanted, with the white screen depicting a portal into another dimension, what he later describes as “religious”.
This experimental trip to St. Mark’s Cinema, together with Sugimoto’s innate curiosity, sparked a photo series that now spans 40 years. Classic movie palaces built in the 1920’s and 30’s, drive-ins from the 40’s and 50’s and ruins of abandoned theaters and historic theaters in Europe now make up this stunning and extensive investigation of time and light.
‘Seascapes’ consists of 220 black-and-white images of the still ocean, and exists as a meditation of time through repetition and constancy. They explore repetition in two ways. Firstly, through representing the ocean and it’s rhythmic characteristics of waves, tides and seasonal change. Secondly, through Sugimoto’s acts of photographing image after image of the same composition, of the sky above and ocean below. His conceptual catalyst is drawn from questioning how an individual today might view a scene just as a primitive man did. His answer: the ocean, over and over again. What he achieves are timeworn images where bodies of water are deemed smooth through the effect of Sugimoto’s long-exposure technique, from the Baltic Sea in Rügen, Germany to the North Atlantic in Nova Scotia, Canada.
In July of 2003, Sugimoto travelled to St. Louis to photograph Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. He had photographed Ando’s structures on occasion before but this time his attention drew him to Richard Serra’s sculpture, ‘Joe’. The first of Serra’s ‘Torqued Spiral’ series, this sculpture stood in a courtyard, and is to be viewed as a work of architecture, experienced by walking through and around it. It additionally differs dependent on the time of day, the season, and the physical position of the viewer. Matthias Waschek, director of The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, describes how “it is in the visitor’s memory that the sculpture “takes shape” in the most complete way”.
Yet the photographs of ‘Joe’ and the sculpture ‘Joe’ itself manage to be quintessentially parallel creation thanks to Sugimoto’s modes of photographic techniques. Involving areas of delicate light and blurred darkness, Sugimoto sculpts views that seem to depict memory itself; he seizes light.
In an effort to further channel parallelisms, Sugimoto put forward the idea of a commissioned text by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer to be part of his book. Foer then composed texts in relation to the sculpture and Sugimoto’s photographs. The book was titled ‘Joe’, as was the protagonist of Foer’s text, as well as the sculpture in the courtyard. These parallelisms go further to those who knew the late Joseph Pulitzer Jr, and would perceive ‘Joe’ as a personal homage.
‘Gates of Paradise’ was conceived whilst Sugimoto travelled around Italy as part of his ‘Theater’ series, now a lifelong project. He visited the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, the older surviving opera house in Europe, and it was there where the theater director pointed out the fresco that ran around the walls, below the ceiling. He explained how it showed a group of Japanese envoys in 1585 being welcomed into the theater on their way from Rome.
Sugimoto then had a vested interest in tracing these boy envoys – the quattro ragazzi of the Tenshō mission to Europe, around Italy. From their arrival at Livorno, to Pisa and Florence, via Siena to Rome, then from Assisi to Venice. He went on a mission, a photographer’s pilgrimage of sorts, to see Europe through the same eyes that they the envoys once saw.
Out of chance he realized that he had already partially followed in the footsteps of the boys, and thereafter made the decision to photograph more of the places they had been. He photographed the Pantheon, devoid of people under a full moon, the Duomo before dawn, and the Gates of Paradise now in the Opera del Duomo Museum when it was shut.
“Pope Gregory XIII welcomed the four boys because he saw them as renewing the spirit of the three wise men coming from the East to pay homage to the new-born Christ. The first encounter of the Japanese with the West. Westerners’ first encounter with Japan…That sense of mutual surprise from over four centuries ago still flows, not quite wholly absorbed, in my bloodstream. I visited the places of origin of my own spirit and made a journey for visual confirmation purposes, which I unveil here at this exhibition."
Hiroshi Sugimoto is this year’s PHOTOFAIRS candidate for the Spotlight exhibition, which focuses on one single artist of international renown and importance in the contemporary photography sphere.
To find out more on Hiroshi Sugimoto and Spotlight at this year’s edition of PHOTOFAIRS, Shanghai, click here.
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