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Hiroshi Sugimoto - Biography and Legacy

Japanese-American Photographer

Hiroshi Sugimoto Photo

Born: February 23, 1948 - Tokyo, Japan



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.

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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.

Mature Period

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.

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Current Work

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.


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.

Most Important Art


"Every time I see the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"One day, standing atop a lone island peak in a remote sea, the horizon encompassing my entire field of vision, for a moment I was floating in the centre of a vast basin. But then, as I viewed the horizon encircle me, I had a distinct sensation of the earth as a watery globe, a clear vision of the horizon not as an endless expanse but the edge of an oceanic sphere."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"In my dreams as a child, I often floated in midair. Sometimes I'd leave my body and watch my sleeping self from on high near the ceiling. Like a out-of-body projection perhaps, a waking self coexisting simultaneously with a sleeping self. Even as an adult, I habitually imagine myself airborne. Might this be at the root of my artistic spirit?"
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"I somehow feel we are nearing an era when religion and art will once again cast doubts upon science, or else an era when things better seen through to a scientific conclusion will bow to religious judgment."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
" I became interested in seascapes because they relate to memories from my infancy: the very earliest thing I can picture is the sea."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"The sea reminds me that within my blood remain traces of human evolution over hundreds of thousands of years."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"A sharp horizon line and a cloudless sky - here began my consciousness."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"Whenever I stand on a cliff looking at the sea, I envision an infinite beyond. The horizon lies within bounds and the imagination stretches to infinity."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"With deity or Buddha both vanished from this day and age, in what can I take refuge? Just perhaps the only object of devotion I have left is the origin of my consciousness, the sea."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"Japanese novelist Jun'ichiro Tanizaki disdained the "violent" artificial light wrought by modern civilization. I, too, am an anachronist: rather than live at the cutting edge of the contemporary, I feel more at ease in the absent past."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"The idea of observing the effects of electrical discharges on photographic dry plates reflects my desire to re-create the major discoveries of these scientific pioneers in the darkroom and verify them with my own eyes."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"In Japanese cultural tradition, the act of emulating works of great predecessors is called honka-dori, taking up the melody. Not looked down upon as mere copying, it is regarded as a praiseworthy effort. Thus I thought to enter Tohaku's Shorinzu, metabolizing its inner life so as to offer up my own 'ink photography'."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"As an artist, I wanted to give zero a shape. To make zero - which has no physical existence - visible, I decided to craft an object that went right to the very blink of zero. I sought to give physical form to a three-dimensional mathematical function, the equation for which becomes zero at its zenith."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"I imagine my vision then try to make it happen, just like painting, (...). The reality is there, but how to make it like my reality."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"It was my goal to visualise the ancient layer of human memory with the means of photography"
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature
"I wanted to recreate those ancient festivals and stone monuments as art in order to re-experience the spirituality of ancient peoples."
Hiroshi Sugimoto Signature

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