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Hiroshi Sugimoto, Japanese Photographer

In our recent blog post on Naoshima Island we mentioned Hiroshi Sugimoto, as he created several site-specific pieces for the Japanese art island. Sugimoto is a photographer and artist who also explores architecture and performing arts. Sugimoto was born in Downtown Tokyo in 1948, shortly after the end of WWII, when the city was in a state of disrepair. He is celebrated for his innovative use of the camera and his exploration of time and memory through the medium.
Sugimoto’s passion for photography was sparked aged 12, when his father – an avid follower of technology – gave him a camera. Creating his own darkroom in his closet and travelling far to take photographs of railways as inspiration for the transport models he made, consolidated photography as Sugimoto’s hobby.

Hiroshi Sugimoto Photogrpahy
 Tyrrhenian Sea Priano, 1994 - Cercle

Sugimoto took a series of photographs in cinemas beginning in 1978, using only the light from the screen to capture breath-taking images. By matching the exposure to the film’s running time, a feature-length production was transformed into a single frame. The ‘Theatre’ series used old cinemas and drive-ins around America as their setting, and the depiction of the seats and blank screen results in their surreal appearance, Sugimoto realised that "different movies give different brightness. If it's an optimistic story, I usually end up with a bright screen; if it's a sad story, it's a dark screen. Occult movie? Very dark."

UA Walker theatre, New York, 1978- The Guardian | Hiroshi Sugimoto
UA Walker theatre, New York, 1978 - The Guardian 

Sugimoto is perhaps best known for his sensational seascapes, titled with their specific geographic location. Sugimoto speaks of a childhood memory of seeing the sea from through a window of a train travelling from Atami to Odawara. Emerging from the tunnels, Sugimoto was struck by the sight of the Pacific, “extending away to a sharp horizon line that snapped my eyes wide open. In that moment I also awoke to the fact that I was me, and that I was here on this earth.”  This moment resonated with him significantly and inspired his exploration of seascapes which has lasted many years and a wide range of locations.

Union City Drive-in, 1993 - The Guardian
Union City Drive-in, 1993 - The Guardian

Sugimoto’s seascapes verge on abstraction. The first of the series, ‘Caribbean Sea, Jamaica’ was conceived in 1980 after three years of preparation. Sugimoto came to the idea when travelling through the Japanese mountains and considering where the beautiful waterfalls ended up. With the knowledge that the waterfalls would make a journey to the sea, Sugimoto set off on his own journey to capture the sea in photographic form.

Caribbean Sea - Artsy | Hiroshi Sugimoto
Caribbean Sea - Artsy 
The seascapes are balanced compositions, with equal parts featuring air and water. Sugimoto is very interested in the way that the world was seen by ancient civilisations, asserting that the only view from earth that will be the same now as it was then, is the sea horizon. On earth, the landscape has been altered by the continued interference of humans – chopping trees, building houses, and agriculture. Sugimoto’s seascapes express the necessity of remembering how the world was seen by the ancients and to hold on, as best we can, to the world in its original state. Sugimoto sees his series as part of a rejection of capitalism, as the ruining of the world will continue until the inevitable eradication of all resources.
The developing process for Sugimoto’s seascape images requires the utmost precision, as it is extremely hard to avoid streaks emerging. As a reaction to this, Sugimoto created his own developer to ensure that there was no unevenness in the finished piece.
About his seascapes Sugimoto has said:
Water and air. So very commonplace are these substances, they hardly attract attention and yet they vouchsafe our very existence. 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 there 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.

Travel Japan | Hiroshi Sugimoto
Travel Japan 

Sugimoto’s photographs of the sky often feature the moon, for which he uses a long exposure to capture its path as it travels around earth. He discovered that by turning his photographs of the moon upside down, he could make it appear as if it was the moon seen from a spaceship, rather from on earth, resulting in a cosmic vision and replicating an out-of-body experience.
Sugimoto’s fascination with the experience of the ancients and the moment that humans gained consciousness is perpetuated in his architectural designs. He designed the Odawara Art Foundation, which consists of a theatre, gallery, teahouse, garden and observatory. The complex was built and informed by the idea of how it would appear many years later, once it had been ‘ruined’ through time like the ancient monuments we are so familiar with. Odawara Art Foundation intends to promote and protect Japanese culture by making art and traditional performing arts accessible for the younger generation. Built in close proximity to the Hakone Mountains, with a view of Sagami Bay, the Odawara Art Foundation lies in an unspoilt area of beauty.

Hyena - Jackal - Vulture, 1976 -
Hyena - Jackal - Vulture, 1976 - 

An intriguing project carried out by Sugimoto is his ‘Diorama’ photographs of the habitat displays in the American Museum of Natural History, which he has returned to four times over four decades. These images not only expose the skill of Sugimoto in making the habitat displays appear as if they are reality, but also the expertise of the artists who constructed the dioramas after from images taken during scientific fieldtrips to Olympic Park. This series, which is housed in the Photographic Print Collection at the museum, comments on nature and reveals multiple layers of transformation. The importance of the photographs is what they say about the natural habitats that are rapidly disappearing.

Polar Bear, 1976 -
Polar Bear, 1976 - 

Based between New York and Japan, Sugimoto’s work is housed by the Art Institute of Chicago, MOMA in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Center for Contemporary Art in Kitakyushu in Japan. 


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