Born 1948 in Tokyo, Japan
Hiroshi Sugimoto is one of the world's most respected photographers working in the field of fine art. He was born and raised in Japan, but in 1970 moved to the USA, studying at the Art Center of Design in Los Angeles, California before moving to New York in the mid-1970s which has remained his main base. Unusually for photography, he was heavily influenced by conceptual art, and works in a tradition involving elements of minimalism and conceptualism, using formalised processes to produce long series of photographs and images stripped of detail.
Many of his works are inspired by the techniques of nineteenth century photography, long exposures with very slow black and white film in simple cameras, but the results transcend his primitive tools. The result of his formalism, like the best abstract and non-realist art, is not a sequence of mechanical and meaningless images but a collection of profound, uncanny artworks that reflect on notions of space and time and universality. Even his most abstract projects, like the long series of seascapes he has created with utterly regular proportions, always exactly half ocean and half sky, become far more than cookie-cutter patterns.
Sugimoto's photographs always question and challenge the notion of what photography is, the idea that a photograph is a snapshot of a moment in time, a visual representation of a particular event in a particular place. He often strips out movement and detail by holding the shutter open for hours, and using incorrect focusing (such as his trademark "infinity times two" setting) and other techniques to reduce the photorealistic accuracy of photography.
The result is often meditative, starkly beautiful, creating a place for thought and reflection, placing timelessness ahead of individual events. If traditional documentary photography converts a sequence of events into a still image, the act of contemplating one of Sugimoto's photographs always involves going beyond the visual. In true minimalist fashion, you consider the act of creation, the process involved. There is something heroic about his task, using primitive black and white cameras carried around the globe as he follows his vast systematic plans to wrap up time and space.
Much of his photographs have been part of a few series, some of which he has worked on for more than 20 years since the 1970s. The main sequences are as follows:
"Theater" (begun in 1978). A series of photographs of cinema screens in American movie theaters of the 1920s and 1930s and the drive-ins of later years, taken with exposure times of 2 hours or more. All the images that played across the cinema screen are reduced to a white rectangle, with only the architecture of the interior of the theatre being clear. A two-hour movie becomes a strange numinous glow, and whether it starred Chevy Chase or Harriet Andersson, whether the hero lived or died, does not matter. The cinema becomes a place of tranquility, as the motion picture is stripped of narrative and representation: it is a victory of eternity over the moment.
"Seascapes" (begun in 1980). Sugimoto took an old and very simple wooden box camera, and marked a horizontal line half-way down the viewfinder. Hypothesising that the one visual experience we have in common with the first homo sapiens is the sight of the ocean, he aligns the marks on the camera with the horizon, and takes a long-exposure photograph of the sea and sky. The simplicity of his technology reinforces a quality of photography, that it is always realistic, not in terms of recording images but in recording the light directed onto the back of the camera. He has been recording seascapes like this for over twenty years. Sometimes the sea is rough and lined with waves, other times it is glass-smooth and glowing with reflected light; sometimes the horizon is obscured by fog and he has to estimate or calculate where to point his camera. The results are utterly simple images that conjure up a vision of prehistory, of the unity of human experience confronted with the ocean, an experience that may properly be called sublime.
"Wax Museum 1 and 2" (begun in 1976) and "Portraits" (begun in 1999). He has produced a series of images of famous people, including Yasser Arafat, Lenin, Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, Napoleon Buonaparte and Henry VIII and his six wives, in three major series of images. At first the photographs look lifelike, until you realise that many of the people they depict died long before the invention of photography, let alone the birth of Sugimoto. The carefully lit images are reminiscent of the portraiture of old masters like Hans Holbein, and seem to dissolve notions of time, reality, and illusion. The first "Wax Museum" images were begun in 1976, with "Portraits" dating from 1999. The last includes a 25-foot long image of the Last Supper taken from a waxwork model.
"Dioramas" (begun in 1976). In a similar way to his images of human waxworks, from 1976 he has turned his camera on the taxidermist's art: he photographed dioramas of stuffed animals and presented them as living things. The images capture a process by which an animal has been killed, restored to a motionless semblance of life, and frozen by a camera, producing a lifelike image you might mistake for the real thing. Perhaps these trompe l'oeil images are a little too clever to be great art, despite their beautiful use of light.
"Architectures" (begun in 1997). This is a recent series of out-of-focus images of classic modernist buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, Tadao Ando's Church of the Light, Osaka, and Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim, as well as works by Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. The blurring of the images, photographed with a focus beyond infinity, removes the physical details from the works, making them resemble architect's models (only without the obvious artificiality and little plastic people), or even ideals of buildings, light and darkness, forms in space. They are austere and hermetic, closed images, not buildings to walk through.
Other works include two huge multi-panelled images of Japanese pine trees, "Pine Landscape", produced as a backdrop for a Noh theatre production by Naohiko Umewaka of Zeani's drama Yashima Daiji.
He has received a number of prizes for his work, including the 2001 Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography. Sugimoto's work has been exhibited worldwide, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1993); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1995-1996); Art Gallery of York University, Ontario, Canada (1998); Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakysuhu, Japan (1998); Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (2000); Guggenheim Museum, New York (2000); Fruitmarket Gallery and Stills Gallery, Edinburgh (2002).
- Monty DiPietro. "Hiroshi Sugimoto at the Gallery Koyanagi". 1997. http://www.assemblylanguage.com/reviews/Sugimoto.html
- Alison Roberts. "King-Maker: Hiroshi Sugimoto". The Guardian. April 20, 2003. http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/saatchi/story/0,13010,941282,00.html
- Hasselblad Foundation. "Hiroshi Sugimoto: The 2001 Hasselblad Award Winner". http://www.hasselbladfoundation.org/sugimoto_eng.html
- Dia Center. "Noh Such Thing As Time: Noh Performance of 'Yashima daiji' at Dia Center for the Arts". 2001. http://www.diacenter.org/sugimoto/
- Jonathan Jones. "Slow dissolve". The Guardian. August 7, 2002. http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,11710,770357,00.html