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Involving Reality

An interview with Hiroshi Sugimoto : Rajesh Punj

The majority of the theatre houses were built in the 1920’s – from 1920 to 1926. That was the peak period of that kind of entertainment, and also that was the bubble time for the American economy, before crashing so dramatically in 1929.

In interview German artist Thomas Ruff was drawn to confessing that he was a liar, for ever having considered that his images, or the images he uses, were anywhere close to reality. Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto employs a subtler, but nonethelesssimilar kind of visual deception, that rather than concentrating entirely on the real,involves realityin scenes of reverential reward. Where Ruff ’s visual inventiveness exposes his agenda for a more painterly approach to photography, discussing his contemporary Gerhard Richter as an influence, so Sugimoto sees his strengths as a combination of his resilience, and an unexpected respect for French conceptualist Marcel Duchamp. And as with Duchamp there is no sense of responsibility to reality, because as a photographer and artist, Sugimoto sees the camera not as a device for capturing life, but a vessel for absorbing reality, and more crucially time. Operating as a filmmaker with photographs, Sugimoto intends with his still images to reveal through light the evolution of time. The anatomy of which is as much hidden in any of the Theatre series, as it is in a monochrome Seascape. Looking into one of the black and white theatre interiors, or more intently the scenes of the sea, we understand little of how the artist might have endeavoured to capture time as a tide of visual information.

Employing the exact same approach to picture making that he originally conceived of in his twenties, Sugimoto likens his technique to that of American photographer Ansel Adams, who saw photography less as a shooting exercise, in the hands of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Garry Winogrand, but more an opportunity to apply oneself to a particular process. Sugimoto sites Adams’s authorship of “a series of books about photography” as hugely influential, saying “when I was a student I tried to follow his instructions, for which I found my own chemicals and technical methods.” CriticallyAdams would see his approach as ‘notto take photographs, but to make them’. And by replacing one verb with another, Adams altered the intention ofphotography in order that he could devote himself to capturing the nuances and nature of light upon an unfettered landscape. As an individual shouldering his large format camera to the remote parts of America, Adams would come to influence Sugimoto’s interest in the elemental, not only for his choice of camera and processing techniques, but also for his approach to picture making. As Sugimoto sees his pictures not only as a series of interior and exterior scenes, but more specifically as episodes of time, with images that successfully truncate time into one impenetrable picture. Explaining how he is ‘fascinated that one shot can capture a moment of time’, and that his interest ‘is in the duration of time, of time itself.’ Which recalls the work of another Japanese/American conceptualist On Kawara, who saw time as a visual device for ‘date’ paintings. 

In-situ, showing at Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris and London, there is an edifyingbeauty to Sugimoto’s large format photographs, that comesas a consequence of his having lived through the drawn-out seconds, minutes, and hours, of his individual images, as though they are somehow autobiographical. By which the artist knows exactly the circumstances surrounding each photograph, as events in and of time. Recalling “in the 1970’s people tended to smoke in the film-theatre, and if they would strike a match it would show up as a tiny stop (of light).”And his understanding of beauty, and the Japanese notion of the beautiful being about imperfection, or the false note, explains Sugimoto’s interest in Duchamp and dilapidated theatre halls, rather than an intention to photographmodern multi-screen complexes, that for him have little or ‘no charm’. Arguing that his works are ‘technically perfect’ as a homage to Ansel Adams, and British photographer (Henry) Fox Talbot, but conceptually ‘off ’, as testament to his adoration of the French conceptualist.


Rajesh Punj: It would be interesting to begin by talking about the works you have here in London, specifically the Theatre Series entitled Snow White. I want to begin by understanding those.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Well the series started in 1976. One of the oldest ones being shown downstairs is from 1978.

RP: You are not showing the entire series here?
HS: No, no just a small fraction. So the system for how I photograph from 1976 to the present has never changed

RP: There appears to be an incredible dedication to how you go about making a single image, by virtue of your approach to capturing time as a template for your works, as I have learned. And there is a kind of performative element to howyou go about doing that; would you agree?
HS: A photograph is based on an accumulation of images. The movie itself consists of hundreds of thousands of images (as light), and of my photographing everything again. That is essentially the concept for how I go about making each of these works.

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