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.
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.
Important Art by Hiroshi Sugimoto
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.
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.
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.