Research notes – Hiroshi Sugimoto

The following comments are made in response to the video “Contacts vol 2: Hiroshi Sugimoto” (1) which can be found here.

When I first read about Sugimoto’s work “Theaters”, I imagined that the long exposures would be of the people in the cinemas, not of the actual screens. The idea for “Theaters” actually came to Sugimoto while talking to himself. It is interesting to see that he had a vision of what he wanted to show, and that such vision later came out as he imagined in his head. In the same way as I, as the espectator, had an idea of what his “Theaters” pictures would look like before seeing them (although in this case turned out to be incorrect), Sugimoto’s previsualisation is also helpful as a tool for the artist before undertaking any work, in as much as it provides the blueprint for delivering his or her vision. One, however, should be open to dealing with unexpected results and be able to either overcome or embrace the obstacles between the pre-vision and the final result.

Sugimoto’s work is highly conceptual and one gets the sense that photography in his case is just a means for delivering something else. His series “Seascapes” for instance, arguably breaks several rules of conventional photography: the scenes are without a clear focal point, the horizon is right in the middle and in some occasions it seems he is photographing nothing but haze or fog. Yet when one hears the artist explain his motivations and what he wanted to achieve, and one looks at the pictures in this context, it does work and it does elicit a reaction which is compatible with that concept.

Another interesting aspect of Sugimoto’s work, and something that connects many of his series, is his attempts to incorporate concepts of time and age within a visual medium. The most direct example is his usage of long exposure in the “Theaters” series, but his idea behind the “Seascapes” series was to create a scene devoid of any human influence so as to transport the viewer back in time to the origins of mankind, to the scene that the fist man on earth would probably have first seen when reaching a coastline for the first time. Likewise, in his “Wax Figures” series and his “Buddha” series Sugimoto tries to replicate, respectively, the lighting conditions used by the old masters in the 18th and 19th century, and the lighting available to people in medieval times, to alter the aesthetics of the photographs and transform them into something which is out of sync with their reality (for instance, some of his “Wax Figures” photographs do resemble actual sitting portraits of a living person, rather than the mere record of inanimated dummies), thus creating a sense of doubt in the spectator.

In his “Wax Figures” series, Sugimoto also explores the idea of what is real and what is an illusion. By using portrait lighting techniques on realistic three-dimensional models, Sugimoto creates realistic portraits that at first do not look like wax mannequins, but represent “idealised visions” of the actual persons portrayed, with Sugimoto pointing out that “people tend to believe whatever the photographic image is”. On the same theme but creating the opposite effect, in his “Architecture” series Sugimoto shots famous buildings deliberately out of focus, creating the immediate impression that one is not looking at reality, but a simplified representation of it. Sugimoto also plays with time in this series, his intention being to go back in time to “…capture the image of (the) architect’s image of the building before they build the building…”. In that respect, these images also represent idealised visions of those structures, as they were in the mind of their creators, with their defects being stripped out by the severe blur created by Sugimoto’s focusing decision, and appearing as if in a dream.

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(1) Ted Tezeu (2011) Contacts vol 2: Hiroshi Sugimoto. Available at: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mcbEgEv2kUw (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

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