Hiroshi Sugimoto: Unmasking Time, Life, and Death

A man intrigued by the capture of time, Hiroshi Sugimoto is a well-known photographer constantly striving to freeze time within his photographs. Through his multiple series, Sugimoto takes several pictures within a common theme, exploring the use of shutter speed, focus, horizon line, perspective, contrast, and lighting in order to emphasis the passing of time or the contrast between life and death. He is most famous for his photos of empty movie theaters and drive-ins, lonely seascapes, posed museum dioramas, and life-like wax portraits and is well-known for using extremely long shutter speeds.Born in Tokyo on February 23, 1948, Hiroshi Sugimoto entered a world overtaken by the Surrealist Movement. Interested in writers such as André Breton and Marcel Duchamp, Sugimoto became influenced by the Dada and Surrealism around him. After having studied politics and sociology and graduating from the Saint Paul’s University in Tokyo, Japan, Sugimoto decided to follow his artistic drive and move to Los Angeles, California to attend the Art Center College of Design. After graduating with a BFA in Fine Arts, Sugimoto moved once more to his current hometown of New York City, New York.

Beginning to explore his chosen medium, the traditional style of photography, Sugimoto began taking photos while touring about New York. While visiting the Natural History Museum, he was viewing the dioramas of animals and Neanderthals, noticing how obviously fake they looked until he peered through the viewfinder of his camera. With one eye closed, he began to see how his camera saw: with a limited sense of perception. With this disability, suddenly the painted backgrounds seemed to blend with the dioramas allowing the stuffed models to appear to live and breathe within an actual environment. Suddenly, the dioramas looked real. Fascinated by this newfound discovery, Sugimoto continued to take pictures of museum dioramas and created his first series titled, Dioramas.

When I first arrived in New York in 1974, I visited many of the city’s tourist sites, one of which was the American Museum of Natural History. I made a curious discovery while looking at the exhibition of animal dioramas: the stuffed animals positioned before painted backdrops looked utterly fake, yet by taking a quick peek with one eye closed, all perspective vanished,and suddenly they looked very real. I had found a way to see the world as a camera does. However fake the subject, once photographed, it’s as good as real.
-Hiroshi Sugimoto

One evening, Sugimoto was suddenly struck with a question that would lead to his next memorable series, Theaters: “Suppose you shoot a movie in a single frame?” Curious to find the answer, he traveled to a cheap cinema in the East Village and set up his large-format camera. Once the curtain opened and the title screen appeared, Sugimoto opened his camera’s shutter and watched the movie alongside his camera. Once the final scene faded to black, he clicked the shutter closed. Eager to develop the film, Sugimoto was astonished at what he found. By filming an entire film within one frame, Sugimoto had captured the brilliant details of the theatre with an entirely white screen. He had transformed the 90 minutes of commotion into a blinding blanks screen of luminosity and had literally photographed a film.

I’m a habitual self-interlocutor. One evening while taking photographs at the American Museum of Natural History, I had a near-hallucinatory vision. My internal question-and-answer session leading up to this vision went something like this: “Suppose you shoot a whole movie in a single frame? ” The answer: “You get a shining screen. ” Immediately I began experimenting in order to realize this vision. One afternoon I walked into a cheap cinema in the East Village with a large-format camera. As soon as the movie started, I fixed the shutter at a wide-open aperture. When the movie finished two hours later, I clicked the shutter closed. That evening I developed the film, and my vision exploded behind my eyes.
-Hiroshi Sugimoto

While Sugimoto is well-known for several series, his most famous is that entitled, Seascapes. Inspired by thoughts of creation, whether Earth was brought to be by a Deity or simply came to be through science, he knew that water and air were the beginnings of creation and that without them, life would not exist. With his feet firm on the ground, Sugimoto began to photograph every sea he came across. Wanting the pictures to be remarkably identical, he drew a compositional guide on the glass within his camera that marked where the horizon should rest: exactly within the middle of the frame granting equal space to the water and to the air. Using exposures that lasted over an hour, Sugimoto was able to calm the unruly elements and present a series of images that seemed to remain frozen in time. By ensuring that nothing was captured within the frame, besides the ocean and the sky, he enhanced the sense of creation and that one was witnessing the prologue of life.

Water and air. So very commonplace are these substances, they hardly attract attention―and yet they vouchsafe our very existence. The beginnings of life are shrouded in myth: Let there water and air. Living phenomena spontaneously generated from water and air in the presence of light, though that could just as easily suggest random coincidence as a Deity. Let’s just say that t here happened to be a planet with water and air in our solar system, and moreover at precisely the right distance from the sun for the temperatures required to coax forth life. While hardly inconceivable that at least one such planet should exist in the vast reaches of universe, we search in vain for another similar example. Mystery of mysteries, water and air are right there before us in the sea. Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing.
-Hiroshi Sugimoto

Returning to his favorite subjects, those that didn’t move, Sugimoto found himself in the museums once more with his next series, Portraits. Sugimoto never liked to photograph people because he could never find anyone to sit perfectly still for his prolonged exposures. Wishing to capture subjects within exposures that ranged from twenty minutes to over an hour, he found that his favorite focal points were replicas. Amazed once more how his photographs could appear to show a real, living subject when actually presenting a model, he began to take portraits of well-known people, only the people were made out of wax. These wax portraits resembled old, traditional painted portraits as the subject was well-lit, contrasting against a solid, black background. “If this photograph now appears lifelike to you, you had better reconsider what it means to be alive here and now,” Sugimoto remarked of his series, playing with the conflict between life and death.

In the sixteenth century, Hans Holbein the Younger, German court painter to the British Crown,  painted several imposing and regal portraits of HenryVIII.  Based on these portrait, the highly skilled artisans of  Madame Tussaud wax museum re-created an absolutely faithful likeness of the king.  Using my own studies of the Renaissance by which the artist might have painted, I remade the royal portrait, substituting photography for painting.  If this photograph now appears lifelike to you, you should reconsider what it means to be alive here and now.
-Hiroshi Sugimoto

Still photographing today, another of his most famous series is a more recent one. Interested in modern architecture, Sugimoto aimed his camera at the tall buildings that span our cities and focused to double-infinity. This created the intentionally-blurry series, Architecture that included such iconic buildings such as the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower. Although blurry, the buildings remain immediately identifiable, demonstrating the mechanics of memory and perception.

Early-twentieth century modernism was a watershed moment in cultural history, a stripping away of superfluous decoration.  The spread of democracy and the innovations of the Machine Age swept aside the ostentation that heretofore had been a signifier of power and wealth.
I set out to trace the beginnings of our age via architecture. Pushing out my old large-format camera’s focal length to twice-infinity―with no stops on the bellows rail, the view through the lens was an utter blur―I discovered that superlative architecture survives the onslaught of blurred photography. Thus I began erosion-testing architecture for durability, completely melting away many of the buildings in the process.
-Hiroshi Sugimoto

By simply following his curiosities and wishing to capture the sense of time and confuse the sense of life and death, Sugimoto created multiple series of photographs that became well-known and loved. Delighting his viewers with the lost sense of what’s real and what’s replicated, he created strong concepts that strengthened his minimalistic images. Through his memorable series, Sugimoto became a well-known photographer, remaining loyal to the traditional ways of capturing images.

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