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Hiroshi Sugimoto

“One night I had an idea while I was at the movies: to photograph the film itself. I tried to imagine photographing an entire feature film with my camera. I could already picture the projection screen making itself visible as a white rectangle. In my imagination, this would appear as a glowing, white rectangle; it would come forward from the projection surface and illuminate the entire theatre. This idea struck me as being very interesting, mysterious, and even religious.”— Hiroshi Sugimoto

What is truly real was revealed to him in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, in face of dioramas with crouching Neanderthals and stuffed polar bears on artificial ice floes. Once photographed, Sugimoto remarked, any object is as good as real. Nor is water just water. Anyone who thinks a single photograph of the sea says it all is mistaken. Sugimoto set out to photograph every sea and ocean on the planet. In the first year of his Seascapes series (1980-2003), it was the Caribbean, seen from Jamaica. Then came the Aegean and the Black Sea, Lake Constance and the Baltic, the North Atlantic, the Sea of Japan, and further bodies of water. Only seasoned sailors have seen as many oceans as Sugimoto. He invariably photographs them from a raised vantage point, with the horizon—now razor sharp, now diffuse—exactly in the middle, and the gently agitated water surface occupying the lower half of the image. Crucial is the large format of 120 x 150 centimeters, which invites contemplation like a window on a world in balance and serenity. He wanted to go back in time to the ancient seas of the world, Sugimoto explained, as a primeval man may have seen them.

A panoply of similar Bodhisattva figures in a 12thcentury Kyoto shrine are likewise associated with the sea: Sea of Buddha (1995). The faces with closed eyes, contemplating inner boundlessness, exude pure harmony. The associations with Zen are so obvious as to need no explanation. Yet that Sugimoto actually succeeded in projecting the notion of the sheer void into film theaters of the 1920s and 1930s and American drive-in movies is astonishing. The temples of Hollywood illusion were transformed into Zen shrines by leaving the shutter open so long that the crime movies and Westerns on the screen vanished into nothingness. There remained only bright white screens, framed by arabesque decor or the black of the night sky.

In his photographs of mathematical objects, called Conceptual Forms (2004), too, Sugimoto strived for pure, absolute form. Helicoid or Hypersphere are the titles of such depictions of trigonometrical functions, calculated by mathematicians and cast in plaster by master mold-makers. He has also photographed architecture, but with the lens purposely adjusted out of focus. Only really good architecture, the photographer says, can stand up to such "blurring attacks."

As little as Japan would be Japan without the tradition of Samurai violence, no review of Sugimoto's work would be complete without his Chambers of Horrors. He spent five years recording the terrors in Madame Tussaud's, from the various methods of execution—guillotine, garrote, hanging, electric chair—to notorious murderers seen in the act. To Sugimoto, these staged scenes seemed more real than the real.

It goes almost without saying that when it came to portraits, contemporaries held little interest for him. He preferred the wax faces of Shakespeare or Emperor Hirohito. An occasion to foreground sumptuous textiles was provided by his series on Henry VIII and his unfortunate wives. Thinking you could go to Sugimoto to have your portrait taken would be to misunderstand the master. You can imagine him politely requesting you to die first and come back in the form of a wax effigy. For Sugimoto, photography contains "great magic," but it is not revealed through a hunt for motifs. It is coaxed out of long exposures that embody "visions in my mind."

Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan


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