The last genuine photographer

At the occasion of the exhibition at the Fondazione Fotografia di Modena, Hiroshi Sugimoto tells Domus his role of artist-scientist, driven by an inexhaustible desire to experiment, “happy to have worked at the end of what we can call the true photographic era”.

Hiroshi Sugimoto Stop Time


“I have recently been shifting towards architecture but I was an art dealer before I became an artist and photographer. I don’t have a static approach to my profession. I can create a big building or a garden in exactly the same way, without imposing restrictions on myself. I don’t know how long I have left to live but I do have big projects for the future: I shall focus my efforts on the theatre, composing music and writing scripts.”

Hiroshi Sugimoto
Top: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Birds of The Alps, 2012. Gelatin-silver print, 119,5 x 171,5 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Above: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Birds of the South Georgia, 2012. Gelatin-silver print, 119,5 x 184,5 cm. Courtesy of the artist
Hiroshi Sugimoto belongs to a category of omnivorous and versatile artists that could be described as “Leonardo-like”. He is driven by a thirst for knowledge, an irrepressible need to understand and decipher the mechanisms that move the world through research that spans many fields of knowledge. His exploration seeks to grasp the human essence, our origin and the birth of our knowledge. “Art is the key to exploring our deep-seated nature; that is why I not only produce it but study and collect it too. I want to understand where we come from and what people did 2000 years ago, or even earlier, in times that have left no trace.”
Hiroshi Sugimoto
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lightning Fields 225, 2009. Gelatin-silver print, 58,4 x 47 cm. Courtesy of the artist
This explains his powerful Seascapes: boundless horizons stretching between sky and sea, seemingly devoid of life and which the artist sees as our forefathers’ primeval perception of the world. “The sea has been there for millions of years and these expanses of water all seem the same but, if you look carefully at the shape of the waves or the quality of the air, you begin to notice subtle but profound differences. To see them, you must focus on the wealth of detail and repeat the process many times. That is why I have worked with photographic series for years. Our eyes allow us to look at the frenetic world but we must stand still if we really want to see all its constituent elements. Photography, with its ability to freeze time, makes it possible.” This is the thought behind the Stop Time exhibition at the Fondazione Fotografia in Modena, which has drawn examples from all the most significant bodies of the famous Japanese artist’s photographic oeuvre.
Hiroshi Sugimoto
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Serpentine Pavillion, 2013. Gelatin-silver print, tryptique, 119 x 448 cm
Since humans have existed, there has always been a desire to halt time and this appears in his majestic Theater series. Sugimoto visited movie theatres the world over and photographed the films in a single frame, making them illegible to the human eye. He left the camera lens open for the entire duration of the film and immortalised large white screens. “Every image is extremely luminous when exposed at length; if it is massively overexposed, it simply disappears. This is a metaphor of how time washes away or burns all things but it is also a way of going back to the very beginning, from where we came and to where we shall inevitably return.”
Hiroshi Sugimoto
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Tyrrhenian Sea, Conca, 1994. Gelatin-silver print, 119,5 x 149 cm. Courtesy of the artist
The subject of the archetype of origin reappears in the Architecture series, for which Sugimoto deliberately photographed Modernist architectural icons out of focus. He wanted, via these blurred images, to reconnect to the artist-architect’s original vision when the work was created and the idea first sprang to mind.
He works exclusively in extremely high definition and, like a modern-day alchemist, is a keeper of the knowledge and secrets of a technique in which the craftsman’s attention, from taking the shot to printing it, produces excellence. “I started in the 1970s and quality-wise analogue photography is the maximum, achieving results that digital photography is not yet capable of.” Dexterity is a distinctive trait of Sugimoto the artist-scientist, driven by an inexhaustible desire to experiment. He constructs machines and instruments, as with the Lightning Fields series for which he did not even use a camera. He impressed the film by means of electrical discharges. An impulse produced by a generator connected to a utensil-rod of his own invention writes directly on the negative, creating anthropomorphous forms that look like primordial organisms. “Perhaps one day I shall discover the origin of life by means of this process.”
Hiroshi Sugimoto
Hiroshi Sugimoto, El Capitan, Hollywood, 1993. Gelatin-silver print, 119,5 x 149 cm. Courtesy of the artist
The crucial value attributed by Sugimoto to science is clear in the Photogenic Drawing series for which he photographed the never-printed negatives of the master Fox Talbot (inventor of photography), which gradually deteriorate with passing time. “Those images formed a connection between the sensitive world and photography for the very first time, an epoch-making fact of the utmost symbolic value. I paid more than a million dollars for my personal collection of photogenic drawings. Only that of the Getty Museum is more important than mine.”
Sugimoto’s work also reflects on the transitory nature of our existence. Human civilisation exploded in the middle of two glacial eras but what are 4000/5000 years in the life of nature or the universe. “The world started changing at an exponential rate in the 1930s and after the birth of the Modern movement. We are advancing towards the final era but people are unconcerned and continue to dream of a radiant future.”
Hiroshi Sugimoto
Hiroshi Sugimoto, MoMA, Bauhaus Stairway, 2013. Gelatin-silver print, 149 x 119,5 cm. Courtesy of the artist
The Dioramas are scenarios in which Sugimoto imagines life after humans have disappeared from Earth. After arriving in New York in the 1970s, he became fascinated by the Museum of Natural History, where he saw large artificial and detailed reproductions of scenes recording life on our planet: dioramas. In the first years of 1900, the Museum had sent several photographers to capture the scenarios of several parks and, on the basis of the photographs taken, commissioned these detailed 3D reconstructions. Sugimoto sensed that by re-photographing the dioramas in black and white, he could cancel their fictitious and theatrical appearance and make them more real than reality. What do our eyes see as true? Photography, he says, is an illusion, as is life itself. “I believe that reality corresponds very well to the Platonic allegory of the cave, where human beings can only see projected shadows. You have a light behind you but will never be able to see its source and understand where it comes from. I cannot prove or refute my existence. I can only know it as I have experienced it.”
This awareness also generated Portraits, a conceptual evolution of the Dioramas which continues to rework the theme of a copy of a copy. They are photographs of wax figures in the Madame Tussaud collection produced from portraits by painters of their own times.  “Live people are too unrefined a material to serve as subjects. That is why there are no humans in my work. It is much better to photograph wax people. They are far more real because they correspond to people’s highest expectations of that person. Take Napoleon who was first idealised in a portrait, then reproduced in wax and finally photographed by me – and I added to the “plastic surgery” during the development and printing of my photographs.”
Hiroshi Sugimoto
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Bay of Sagami, Atami, 1997. Gelatin-silver print, 119,5 x 149 cm. Courtesy of the artist
It is interesting to think of these history icons who lived before photography was invented. Napoleon is a prime example. Photography was invented 18 years after he died. What would his picture have looked like if he had been photographed? Would David’s famous portrait immortalising him as a hero mounted on his white steed perhaps have been replaced by a realistic photograph? “The painted vision has always been far easier to present than a photographic one because it is idealised. Now, however, with the arrival of digital photography, you can make all the changes you wish, just as in painting. But I am not interested in this development. My photography, the traditional one, has existed for 180 years and I see myself as the last genuine photographer. I am very happy to have worked at the end of what we can call the true photographic era.”
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