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(Sugimoto in Beijing, 2012)








Since the belated arrival of colour photography as a (respectable and collectable) art-form in the 1970’s, black and white photography, apparently deaf to all historicist notions of technological progress in the arts, has continued to provide the world with its most memorable, most sublime (and yes…most beautiful) images. One of the world’s foremost black and white photographers, Hiroshi Sugimoto, remains resolute in his continued artistic exploration of the possibilities of this, now ‘classic’, form of the production and reproduction of the photographic image. Seeing his photographs presented in large format in a friendly exhibition space, adds even more to an attraction already considerable; encompassing as it does a distinctive and rarified aesthetic combined with a challenging intellectual acumen. For those who have only seen these photographs as reproductions in books or on-line, an exhibition, Sugimoto ‘live’ (so-to-speak), is a particular treat.


In a world where fashion has dictated that practitioners of classic black and white photography have (with the honourable exception of those dedicated to working in the documentary style) turned to the surreal detail in an attempt to revive a received repertoire, Sugimoto has looked elsewhere for the elusive dimension of depth, or sense of sublimity, that raises an image above its fellows in the contest for our critical acclaim. So it is that despite (or maybe we should say because) of his addiction to black and white photography, the artist’s integration of the conceptual into his artwork at the most fundamental level, both renders his images striking and thoughtful and reaffirms his experimental credentials; all of which were evinced in this retrospective collection of many of the images that have made him a ‘name’ in his field, as well as his latest offerings.


Among the more recent of which are: The Lightning Fields series (2009), an essay in black and white in its most minimal aspect; suggestive but ‘non-representational’ (or perhaps we should admit that with the addition of the title to our perception of the images, that they are ‘almost’ representational, mimetic and imitative … suggestive of the content the title prompts). What we see: (white) lines and blurs (on a black background); the black and white image reduced to its essence. Offering a sense of photography starting again, of returning to absolute basics, minimalist-style, all the better to recommence the climb back up to seeing afresh (with one eye turned toward the early experiments of the Photo-succession and the Surrealists).


The Conceptual Forms series (2004) offers more figurative matter in two aspects: the first that of sculptural machines; found objects made to look gigantic, with the grandiosity of monoliths - as most notably in ‘Regulator’. The second aspect is found in a variety of made-up geometrical forms, minimalist inventions, enigmatic, side-lit. In all cases the medium of black and white is key to the envisioning of the matter presented; never just the transparent means of presentation (should such a thing in fact ever exist) but playing a fundamental part in the image-worthiness of the thing presented.


Also figurative, but this time, figurative/conceptual, are a sequence of works questioning history. Portraits: Henry VIII and his Wives (1999- ), employs figures from history, historical personages. Yet the manner of presentation also exposes their posedness, their nature as manikins (wax works from assorted Madame Tussaud’s), their nature as artifice. Almost a recreation of biography as statue. But statues are memorials to the importance of something… certainly not to Henry (or only in an ironic sideswipe): so to a situation, the remains of which (in the poplar imagination) are largely salacious and on a par with today’s scandals of celebrity. For in this ‘Six Wives of (and including) Henry VIII, in this ‘history’, the women (to this viewer at least…) all appear to be the same… as if modeled by the same person; so foregrounding the constructedness of the sequence - as well as indicating the point of view as a self-consciously ironised male fantasy (it was Henry who did the choosing, but the artist has chosen too). The resulting photographs are a subtle critique of this fantasy in its relation to, or realisation in, specific relations of power… (fantasy is one thing; the power relations to enact it quite another).


Historical recreations are taken a step further in a selection of images that offer a recreation of the Prehistoric; the recreation of (pre) history…. Images of pre-historic people and their environment are presented as if photographed - as if documentary. Again vision, the realm of the image is used to realise a non-visual realm; a history of which no images remain. What use is such pseudo-history; why image (pre) history? The question so posed is: when we see pre-recordable, pre-documented -pre-documentable- history as if documented, as if recorded: what do we feel, what do we think? Is it the very concept of recordability that is as the issue here? What is documentary? What degree of constructedness is present in our ‘documenting’, our ‘recordings’, our representations of reality, of just how much ‘re‘ there is in re-presentation? (As for example in the oft-posed question: How much Photoshop is justifiable…?) In these images all is re-constructed, only information external to the image, history reconstructed through remnants unearthed by archeology, inform the image.



It is to two, already classic, photographic sequences that we must now turn, and with which I want to spend a little more time, to the vision of Seascapes and the interrogation of vision in Theatres.






A night whose lining is of silver; a sea of sable lit by an ivory sky.






The Seascapes series (1980-2000s). A haunting set of studies of the horizon line, the place where sea and sky touch, the place where a particular kind of light is born. The range of these images indicates a deliberate exploration of possibilities, from abstract evocations of Rothko’s division of the picture plane (the ‘horizon’ bisecting the black and white photographic image mirrors his division of the painting into two colours) to a capturing of that special sense of a ‘place above water’ which conjures a three-dimensional space with no obvious content apart from the light that inhabits it, a habitation of which the ‘occupant’ is invisible (so echoing our own occupation of the room of the self). Invisible; but luminous (as in Turner’s watercolours, so placing Sugimoto in a long historical tradition of painting ‘the place above water’). We have on offer a range of pictorial possibilities from the presentation of an abstract flat surface to the depiction of depth (still abstract) and from the assertion of a two-dimensional picture plane (degree zero of illusionism) to the evocation of the space above water as three-dimensional. This latter is most notable, offering a space illuminated; a highlighted space above water, often including light’s reflection on water. Evoking a presence through absence (an idea we will see explored in a very different way in the section on Cinemas that follows). Various degrees of the presence of light and the grouping of light, both on and above water, are sometimes dispersed, sometimes centered in the image (both in the sky and on the sea, sometimes providing a single centre, sometimes a double presence of light). To the foregoing effects we must add a near infinite variety of shades of grey, a mediating range of tones with which to soften the achromatic starkness of black and white. A grey pallet to supplement the black and white imagining of the sea horizon… so manifesting variety amongst an apparently minimalist approach (a technique also in evidence in his other works).




Walls of coal and granite, and then the all too pristine whiteness of the blank page.





What do we see when we look at the sequence of photographs entitled, Theatres (1978- )? Do we see the interiors of cinemas themselves or do we see cinema screens? What is the topic here? Our focus is divided. The choice offers radically different perceptions; radically different modes of perception. But perhaps that is the point… If the topic is the screen, then the image is of a blank, so imageless, screen, a screen framed by a detailed frame…so doubly framed, by the picture frame and the surround of the cinema screen; so twice fore-grounded, doubly significant…an exacerbation either sacral or conceptual, of intensity of feeling or of thought. This is the result (sublime) of the absence of image. Of placing absence at the core of the image. The image, in this way, is the image within, with the residual or surplus aspects of the image as the frame that further focus our attention. In this case the topic is image, its nature, its time and its projection - conceptual fare. Furthermore there is the additional aspect of the sense of self as before a screen (a question addressed to the viewer, to the pragmatic moment of language and image appropriation: what is it to look at an image…). Or the lurking question as to what is that is behind the blank screen – what lies behind (expanded into a question addressed to the nature of cinema as an institution, as a privileged and so symbolic place of symbol presentation). If we are in doubt as to the appositeness of this question we might note that these questions would not be asked by us if the screen were full, when the plenitude of the image and its accompanying narrative would be playing, or excerpted, before us... It is the ‘white light’, the ‘blank’ screen (in actuality the totality of the film shown, as the photograph’s exposure encompasses this time) that promotes these reflections. The totality of the film as light is stated, is revealed… the nature of the frame and our reflection upon such (rather than its materiality) is what is fore-grounded – prompted…. Our reflection, therefore: the cinema as institution, the image as institution…





If the topic is (read as) the cinema as place, the cinema as interior, as material presence (albeit one step removed by the blacking/bleaching out of colour), then the image = the image content. The inner frame of the image (the image within the image) has become just another part of the image in total; it has its own value, over and above being a frame for another place, another voice… So it is left to sing with its own voice, the grain of which reveals (which revels in) its own texture… So what we have (what we see) is the texture of, and so finally the materiality of the image. ‘…of the image’; but not of materiality as such. We are talking about the photographic texture, the black and white rendition of the place, the grain of the voice of a photographic event (I want to repeat: it is not natural to use black and white as a recording medium, it is always a question of code; in the case of documentary, for example, gritty unvarnishedness signals authenticity, despite the inaccuracy of the tonal realization…). Moreover, if black and white is untruth, as an always already changed image, changed by a recording medium that is counterintuitive regarding representation (we see in colour), then we are beyond a pure imitation of nature (beyond that kind of illusionism). This level, or veil, has been removed, and the image as a product of human culture, as a received ‘code’, as an ‘artificiality’, an ‘artifact’, or just ‘art’, is left. An image, for the viewer in real time, an event, has been created - based upon recording technology, to be sure. Unapologetically so. A version of reality is presented… as such; with its versionality foregrounded. Jubilant. Ecstatic. So it is that in the process of mis-taking a piece of reality, in the course of its rendition by an inadequate technology (in human terms, we are the measure of all, it does not see as we do…), that this polarisation of light values and concomitant re-texualisation (or perhaps re-contextualisation), that this emphasis on the photographic text, reveals a set of quite remarkable interiors; most notably in the older theatres, which feature detailed stucco alongside other forms of décor. Fold and shadow, foreground and highlight. Black and white. Here we behold: cinema as detail, as sculpture, but of a sculpture that is transformed… created, by means of the photograph (as we have seen, other works by Sugimoto also do this). The photograph as sculpture.


The divided image; mis-en-abime. Offering a double theme; the abstract and conceptual blank screen … and the detailed texture of the cinema interior (tellingly brought out by the black and white photography). The absent and the solid. The plenitude or presence of the surround versus the poverty (provocative) of the central -reframed- absence; two orders of visual experience; a double event happening, two types of visual space, sensuous and puritan, representational and abstract… or sublime. Indeed the beautiful as frame for the sublime…Like a landscape; an interior landscape; an interior space and the interiority of thought. What is seen and what is not seen, but implied, pointed to: (yet again) the sublime aspects of the sky and attendant symbolic matters: but this time the deixis points out ‘behind’ the visual text, or into an infinite inner regress, and not up and out as in the art history of the image. Furthermore, in this case the pointing beyond is overlaid on what remains, on the light made out of a complete narrative; a narrative which is lost and worthless, complete and lost, completed and so lost… The awareness of which only reaches us through indirect means (by means of information over and above that contained in the title and the image (the image as product of a prolonged exposure, precisely the playing time of a film)) …so secondary and redundant (doubly lost, doubly redundant). Pure light, as in other landscapes, points elsewhere. Interior landscapes can also do this - and this is one that does just that…. Like the Seascapes, a more ‘traditional’ kind of landscape, bearer of a double language; of image and of idea, pleasure and thought, plenitude and absence, or our old, not yet absent, friends (because bearing the residual ritual element in art), the beautiful and sublime.


If in Edward Hopper’s’ ‘New York Movie’ (1939) the division of space questions the role of the imagination in a divided world, then Hiroshi Sugimoto, in the divided spaces of ‘Seascapes’ and Theatres’, shows a division in space which reveals the split world of our imagination.









Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2012