Summary of Hiroshi Sugimoto
Hiroshi Sugimoto's work has achieved widespread recognition for its exploration of abstract concepts, such as time, vision and belief, through meticulously balanced images that encourage prolonged attention and serve to focus audience consideration on the ways in which humanity makes sense of itself. He was heavily influenced by his involvement with New York's Minimal and Conceptual art scenes in the late 1970s and the degree to which he used the camera as a means of engaging with ideas played a significant role in expanding photography beyond documentary uses. His best-known series draw heavily upon repetition, unifying disparate locations through shared compositions, and are characterized by use of long exposures, black and white film, and analog processes. In recent years, Sugimoto has begun to design architectural spaces that, like his photographs, use simplicity of form to focus attention on the mechanisms through which we understand the world.
- Sugimoto aims to create suspended states through pausing or altering the way the passage of time is represented. This separation encourages audiences to observe the world from a removed perspective, distancing familiar concepts and environments and stimulating a form of focused attention that can be likened to the scientific study of specimens removed from their environment. Sugimoto believes that the camera can make visible that which the eye cannot see, most notably including time itself and the emotional effects of space.
- The history of photography strongly informs Sugimoto's work. The artist works with 19th- and early-20th-century techniques in creating images, often using a large-format wooden camera and always mixing chemicals and developing prints by hand, but also engages with the ideas and traditions that interested early photographers including dioramas, wax figures, and various mechanisms for registering light. The palpability of this lineage in Sugimoto's images serves to anchor his exploration of abstract themes in a concrete tradition. This sense of artistic continuity serves to position Sugimoto's ideas as contributions to an ongoing dialogue and as an evolution in photographic thought.
- Sugimoto's reference points and subjects draw from his experiences in the United States of America, Europe, and Japan and his repetition of image compositions, as in the Theatres or Seascapes, serve to unify different times and places. Sugimoto's interest in images that transcend geographic and temporal conditions can be connected to his childhood experiences and to his ongoing interest in abstract concepts such as belief, vision, and culture. As he has matured, Sugimoto's interest in traditional Japanese culture has become more pronounced in his work.
Progression of Art
Polar Bear is amongst the earliest images in Sugimoto's Dioramas series (1976 - 2012), most of which were taken at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The image portrays a bear in an arctic landscape paused above the body of a seal and is deliberately constructed, with use of reflectors to capture the texture of fur and careful calibration of exposure time to isolate the white shades of bear and backdrop, so that the scene appears real. Sugimoto's photographs of dioramas provoke a questioning of the ways in which museums display natural history, suspending time through images in which the slippage between the wild and the artificial becomes palpable. Sugimoto creates his work with a large-format wooden camera and photographs in black and white, developing the images according to the recipes of Ansel Adams, furthering the illusion of the diorama as he removes the artificial colors of the painted backdrop.
This image, like Sugimoto's work more broadly, is closely involved with the history of photography and notions of time in relation to and apart from human history. The diorama, as a means of presenting the world, became popular in the late-19th century, in the same period in which photography began to be lauded for its scientific accuracy, and both technologies derived power from their ability to capture and preserve specific moments. Sugimoto's major contribution to visual art lies in the craft with which he uses the camera's relationship to time and its capacity for illusion to focus our attention on ways in which humans makes sense of the natural world. Sugimoto has continued exploring the concepts central to the Dioramas series in other works, including Portraits (1999 - present), which takes another 19th-century technology, the wax figure, as a subject.
Gelatin Silver Print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Ligurian Sea, Saviore
The Seascapes series (1980 - present) continues Sugimoto's investigation of time in relation to history and to photography itself. Ligurian Sea, Saviore shows water and air bisected by the horizon, captured in black and white in a long exposure. The image offers no trace of the vantage point from which the photograph was taken, leading the viewer to feel as if they are suspended, floating, between sea and sky. Sugimoto's Seascapes are all composed in this manner, drawing upon the horizon as a point of orientation across cultures and across time. The format serves to unify disparate locations, positioning the sea as at once universal and singular; each image conforms to a type that allows specificity. In Ligurian Sea, Saviore, the sea and sky appear indistinct, as if enveloped in fog, with only close scrutiny revealing the darker grey of the horizon line and a hint of the ripples of the water in the foreground.
Seascapes is deeply conceptual and Sugimoto has written that this work comes out of his understanding of the ocean as an expanse that has lasted through millennia, connecting us with a past that precedes recorded history, and his contemplation of the ways in which a camera can capture what the eye cannot. In the images, which are created with exposures of between 1/30 of a second and several hours, time serves to abstract the landscape, and the only indication of a human presence is in the names that the images are given, which act as a record of the ways in which people make sense of the ineffable through concepts such as naming. The photographs from this series are usually displayed in groups of three, further emphasizing the universality of the ocean.
Gelatin Silver Print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Color of Shadows, 1015
The Color of Shadows series (2004) can be seen as indicative of Sugimoto's desire to push his investigations to their limits, involving elaborate staging in pursuit of a seemingly simple study of the effects of light. Color of Shadows, 1015, depicts a white corridor leading to a white wall, with only the hint of wooden floorboards at the lower edge of the frame disrupting the ascetic space. The image's formal definition is provided by the tones and colors of shadow, with blocks and gradations creating depth and visual interest. Sugimoto's vision for the project required him to redesign the interior of a hilltop penthouse, surfacing the walls in shikkui, a Japanese plaster which absorbs and reflects light evenly. The subsequent photographs record the light and shadows at different angles, exposures, and times of day, directing attention to the volumes and corners of the space's architecture.
This series, like others by Sugimoto that take modern and contemporary architecture as subject, can be seen as a new phase in his engagement with physical space and the history of photography. The photographic image, at its most basic, is formed by light registering on a surface, and Sugimoto's series returns the viewer to this principle, explicitly directing attention to the formal qualities of shadow. Sugimoto's images of austere, formally pure interiors strip away superfluous detail, creating a suspended state in which it is the play of light and shadow that connect the world of the image with the world outside. Sugimoto's camera captures the ephemeral and allows us to contemplate it at a duration and with a remove which would otherwise be impossible. The value of Color of Shadows, 1015 is dependent upon the viewer's intuitive appreciation of subtle gradations of tone and color and, in this, can be considered as a commentary on the way in which we are emotionally moved by the elements that sustain earth, including light.
Pigment Print - Private Collection
Surface of Revolution with Constant Negative Curvature
Surface of Revolution with Constant Negative Curvature is an object representing a mathematical equation. This is one of a group that Sugimoto created and later photographed in a series entitled Mathematical Models (2005 - 2015); the photographs are usually displayed alongside the model, though each object is an independent work of art itself. In order to create the piece, Sugimoto input equations into a computer in order to map the physical sculpture before producing it. The reflective aluminum forms a circular disk at the base, which stretches upward at the center, narrowing toward a vanishing point. In transforming the equation into a physical object, Sugimoto brings to reality an abstract, philosophical idea.
This work springs from Sugimoto's interest in the history of science and his ongoing questions on the nature of representation. The object refers to the theories of Isaac Newton and the works of artisans in the late-19th and early-20th centuries who attempted to represent concepts of geometry through objects, but also introduces an element of doubt, producing an object that transforms the equation into a sculpture, suggesting at once the beauty of mathematics and the power of art, and modern technology, to transform and transcend classical science.
Object in Aluminum - Private Collection
Polarized Color 048
Polarized Color 048, one of fifty images in the Polarized Color series (2010), is a small square of intensely concentrated color; moving from a deep blue at the top of the frame through a bright aquamarine at the vertical midpoint into a succession of greens tinged with yellow toward the image's base. Sugimoto created this work in his studio, using a prism to refract the morning light into seven colors and projecting these onto a white wall before recording them with a polaroid camera. The resulting images are usually displayed together and are often arranged in a horizontal line.
The spectrum that Sugimoto explores in the series is derived from Isaac Newton's analysis of optics and these works can be seen as a continuation of Newton's experiments with devices that isolate and record natural light. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, however, took issue with Newton's focus on light as a scientific phenomenon, arguing in his Theory of Color that it was through emotion, not empirical knowledge, that such phenomena should be understood. Polarized Color 048 acknowledges these positions as opposites in its title, but the image itself encourages meditation on transitions rather than categories, focusing not on the individual colors that Newton identified but on the spectrum of unnamed hues that lie between blue, green and yellow, demonstrating that art might offer a fuller, and more emotional, complement to scientific understanding of light. Thus, Polarized Color is an exploration of the tension between hard-headed science and the poetic ideals of the age of Romanticism.
Polaroid - Private Collection
Villa Mazza Corrati 'Le Notti Bianche'
Villa Mazza Corrati 'Le Notti Bianche' is an image from Sugimoto's Opera House series (2014 - present), an extension to his Theatre series (1980 - present), which capture cinema screens positioned in European opera houses. The focal point of these images is a glowing screen; Sugimoto captures these images by opening the shutter of the camera for the duration of a film, creating a white rectangle that both abstracts the film being shown and illuminates the space in which that film is contained. The Opera House series reflects Sugimoto's growing interest in architecture and the history of theatre; the glowing screens occupy only a small portion of the frame, directing the viewer's attention to the opulent surroundings.
This image, as is common across Sugimoto's oeuvre, is a painstakingly produced meditation of the nature of art and time and a demonstration of the camera's ability to capture what the eye cannot. The white light that emanates from the screen visually echoes representations of the divine, but is used here to represent the film that has played, suggesting that art and time have transcendent, quasi-religious properties. Seen in relation to Sugimoto's broader interest in phenomena that generate powerful emotion and yet resist representation, the pure rectangle of light appears to indicate the impossibility of capturing the power of the moving image through an isolated still. This opera house is shown as a site that balances the glowing screen, suggesting it is a space with the power and dignity to contain the intangible and positioning it as a sacred space in which we are moved by encounters that reach beyond our own lives.
Gelatin Silver Print
Appropriate Proportion is a site-specific installation, created as part of the Art House Project on the island of Naoshima, in which individual artists are given an empty or abandoned building in the town of Honmura with which to work; Sugimoto's intervention takes place in and around Go'o Shrine, which dates from the Muromachi period (1338 - 1573). The artwork has three interconnected central components. The visitor encounters the shrine from the edges of a rectangular area filled with small rocks. At the center of this area, onto which the visitor is prohibited from stepping, is a large boulder, upon which Sugimoto has built a small wooden worship hall. The shrine's sanctuary is beyond this, taking the form of another wooden structure, elevated from the ground with a central staircase of rock and glass connecting it to the space below the boulder. This space, a dark chamber, cannot be seen from above, but may be reached via an umarked downhill path that begins near the shrine and leads to a short concrete tunnel into the mountain below; in this space, the visitor once again encounters the glass stairs that lead to the sanctuary, illuminated by the light above. As the visitor turns to leave, the entrance to the concrete passageway frames a view of the sea beyond.
This installation is as much a religious site as an artwork and reflects Sugimoto's views on the nature of the divine and the ways in which it can be represented. In ancient Shinto practices, a shrine derived its power from the gods that reside in the surrounding landscape, and the choice to place a boulder at the center of this space is an act that recognizes the rocks from which these islands are made as spiritually central. The role of what Sugimoto labels the "stairway of light," connecting the spaces above and below ground, suggests the power of the divine to unify that which is separate, while the view toward the water as the visitor leaves encourages a continued mediation on the transcendental qualities of nature. Finally, the Go'o Shrine is a space that allows the visitor to observe from the edges, but not to approach or enter the sanctuary, suggesting the ultimate unknowability of the spiritual realm.
Site-Specific Installation - Go'o Shrine, Benesse Art Site Naoshima, Japan
Biography of Hiroshi Sugimoto
Hiroshi Sugimoto was born in Tokyo in 1948. Reflecting on childhood memories, Sugimoto feels he gathered images and sensations that he would later explore through art. Sugimoto was moved by specific subjects, such as the view of the horizon across the ocean seen through the window of a train (which he recalls from age five), and he discovered new ways to look at the world, imagining himself from alternate perspectives, including from the ceiling of a room. This interest in creating distance between the viewer and everyday life through shifts in perspective can be seen across many of Sugimoto's later works. Sugimoto was given his father's Mamiya 6 camera when he was twelve and began experimenting with it as a teenager; he would photograph Audrey Hepburn on screen as her movies played at the local theatre.
Education and Early Training
Photography, in Sugimoto's youth, was only beginning to emerge as an art form. He did not initially consider the discipline as a profession and instead studied politics and sociology at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. Sugimoto was very uncertain of his future after graduation and spent time travelling, visiting the Soviet Union, Poland, Western Europe and the United States of America. His decision, in 1971, to apply to study commercial photography at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, was motivated largely by his desire for a visa that would allow him to spend an extended period in California. Sugimoto, noticing that American students had an interest in Zen Buddhism and realizing that his own interest in foreign cultures had led him to neglect Japanese culture, began to study Eastern philosophy informally. Sugimoto has noted that such pursuits meant he was not a diligent student while enrolled at the ArtCenter; his understanding of Zen Buddhism, however, had a substantial influence on subsequent work.
After graduating, Sugimoto returned briefly to Japan before moving to New York in 1974, where he held a succession of jobs as assistant to various commercial photographers, all of which he has described as ending in mutual dissatisfaction. Sugimoto spent much of the late 1970s and early 1980s visiting shows at small galleries in Soho and considering his own relationship to contemporary art; in 1976, he began to take photographs at the Museum of Natural History, which would lead to his first substantive series of photographs, entitled Dioramas. Sugimoto has described his process of artistic exploration in this period as relatively slow, but many of his best-known series were begun in these years; he took his first images for Theaters in 1978 and for Seascapes in 1980, and Sugimoto would continue to expand on these series over subsequent decades.
In 1979, Sugimoto and his wife opened a Japanese antique shop on West Broadway, opposite Walter de Maria's Broken Kilometre. This shop provided an independent income source and a space that could be used as a darkroom, and Sugimoto met many artists central to the Minimal and Conceptual Art movements, including Isamu Noguchi, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin alongside de Maria. These artists shared an interest in Japanese art and philosophy and were regular visitors to Sugimoto's shop; his circle subsequently expanded as they introduced him to other artists in New York, including On Kawara and Nam June Paik. Sugimoto is often seen less as a photographer than as a Conceptual artist working with photography, and his exposure to Soho's artistic community in this period provided a context that shaped and has continued to inform his work.
In 1980, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and he had his first major solo show in 1981, at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York. Sugimoto established himself as a photographer using a large-format wooden camera, working only in black and white due to his belief that color photography appeared artificial and undermined the viewer's belief in the image. He has always developed his own film and mixes the chemicals for this by hand, following the recipe of Ansel Adams. Despite his growing success, Sugimoto continued to run his antique shop until 1989; after closing it, he continued to collect antiques and began to incorporate these and other objects into his work.
Sugimoto's 1995 solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York led to greater recognition and the financial means to expand his artistic practice. The artist began photographing modern architectural sites that year and was subsequently able to expand on this series through extensive travel. He subsequently began designing interior spaces in which to take photographs and designing objects to photograph, which were subsequently displayed alongside the resulting images. This work led to a number of commissions for more ambitious spatial projects and Sugimoto, hiring three architects with whom to work, started an architectural practice, New Material Research Laboratory, in 2008. Sugimoto's architectural work can be seen as an expansion of, rather than a departure from, his photographic work, giving him greater control over the presentation of his images in museums and allowing him to explore his core themes in multiple dimensions.
Sugimoto has continued to add images to his early series, including Dioramas, Theaters and Seascapes, throughout his career, expanding these groups as he identifies new locations in which to shoot. In the projects he has recently begun, Sugimoto has gravitated toward architecture, designing a number of restaurants and teahouses. His architectural work, like his photographic practice, is guided by his belief that minimalism and simplicity in aesthetics can prolong an audience's attention and generate deeper focus. He has spent the bulk of the last decade focused on the Enoura Observatory in Odawara, Japan, which opened in October 2017, housing Sugimoto's collection of Japanese antiques alongside a teahouse and spaces for the production and performance of traditional Japanese theater. The structure, overlooking the ocean, provides a view of the horizon analogous to Sugimoto's Seascapes and Sugimoto selected the site for its proximity to the place where he first, as a child, began thinking about the ocean as an orientation point in human consciousness.
The Legacy of Hiroshi Sugimoto
Sugimoto's work has had a substantial influence on contemporary understanding of photography and has, in concert with work by critics, curators, and other photographers over the same period, served to expand the possibilities of the medium. He serves as a bridge between photography's craft tradition and digital future, connecting analog techniques with concepts of dematerialization that hint at the vastness of humanity's past and future. In creating work which served to question, rather than simply document, the world, Sugimoto expanded the field such that many other photographers have found space in which to pursue similar enquiry. His visual influence can be seen in the work of many younger photographers; some, like Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre and Takashi Homma, echo Sugimoto's removed compositions of architecture and interiors, while others, like Rika Noguchi, have continued Sugimoto's consideration of light and color. Sugimoto continues to work as a photographer and to design spaces for the display of his own work and that of others and it appears certain that his influence will grow as artists interested in his photographic work mature and his architectural work reaches a wider audience.