LIGHT FANTASTIC

black white

From his black and white, long-exposure shots of cinema screens to his extreme Polaroid close-ups of colour; now appearing on a limited edition of Hermes scarves, Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimotowork is always an incredible optical infusion Photography Fumino Osado Writer Nick Compton

Hiroshi SugimotoTokyo studio is at the end of a long corridor in a modernist, but modestly so, low-rise apartment block in leafily hushed and tidy Shirokanedai. There is a little sign outside which says ’and nothing else.

The studio has a long stretch of east-facing window, set to catch the colder, clearer morning light. He bought it for that reason.

The light is particularly good around New Year, Sugimoto says. sun rises straight ahead. On New YearDay you usually get no rain, the air quality is extremely clear. You can see Mount Fuji from here.

The space, he adds, has been laid out, as much as possible, in the same way as Isaac NewtonWoolsthorpe Manor was when Newton was doing his damnedest to decompose white light and then put it back together again. (Itnot easy to mentally superimpose the sparse, thoroughly modern studio space onto Newtonearly 18th-century pile, but Sugimoto sees light and space and angles when the rest of us might be lost in the details). And at one end of the studio is a ceiling-high transparent obelisk, a pristine prism of optical quality glass.

Sugimoto is quite the Newtonian.

actually bought an original first edition in English of NewtonHypothesis of Light.

I just wanted to follow up his system.

And this set-up is a very simple copy of what Isaac Newton did in 1704.’

He bought the prism ten years ago and developed a gears-and-mirror system that could redirect the colours the prism picked out of the morning light into a dark hallway. Sugimoto talks about this process as an act of almost ungodly violence, splitting by force and subterfuge a natural coherence, but creating out of that violence beautiful colour.

When he is here-Sugimoto spends more than half the year in New York-he gets up in the morning and takes extreme close-up shots of these patches of colour with a Polaroid camera. He was given the camera as a gift and spent a long time thinking about what to do with it. For a photographer famous for shooting in black and white on a large format camera and using very lengthy exposure times, it seems an odd tool. But for these small-scale polychromatic abstractions, with one colour buzzing and transforming into another, it works just fine.

film has its own character, a kind of charm,’he says. I usually work in black and white only, so it was kind of fresh to work in colour. I instantly

found it interesting, so I became serious and bought up all the film I could get hold of.’He has two or three years’worth of supplies left, he says.

The Polaroid and the prism, Sugimoto enthuses, have taken him on a remarkable journey. more and more I experimented with this, the more and more it was like I was in a spaceship, approaching a far-off planet somewhere. There is the cool surface of this planet; this is a moon of Jupiter Iapproaching; this is almost like the surface of the sun.

 

I get an almost cosmic feeling out of this.’

Sugimoto admits to the passions of the gentleman British explorer and scientist and collector of strange or remarkable objects. He looks back to an era of restless and promiscuous intellectual curiosity, before science became ultra-specialised and institutionalised and definitely not the concern of the amateur. even going back to the Renaissance when science, art and religion used to be one package,’he adds. person thinking about God and light.’Sugimoto thinks a lot about these things.

All photography is of and about light, of course. But Sugimoto has made it his subject like no one else. And added, if not God, then something transcendental.

Born in Japan in 1948, Sugimoto started taking pictures as a young trainspotter. He studied politics and sociology at university in Tokyo before moving to Los Angeles in 1970 to study art. He has said he studied Western thinking in Japan and Eastern thinking in California, a happy longhair bouncing around the state in a camper van. Then he started to get serious about his photography and in the mid-1970s in New York he had an idea about taking a picture of a movie, an entire movie.

He took a large format camera into an East Village movie house and opened the shutter when the film began and closed it when the film finished. In the picture the screen is brilliant white and gives off just enough light to render the theatre itself in gorgeous detail.

Where there was colour and movement, plot and character, fate, beginnings and endings, three-act tragedy and/or comedy, there was only what Shelley (via Geoff Dyer) called white radiance of eternity’. Sugimoto had recomposed colour into white light, just like Newton.

In the earliest of his movie theatre images the audience is still there, but ghostly, vaporous, occasionally bursting into flame when they light a cigarette.

In later images in the series-he kept taking them in different places until the early 1980s-Sugimoto removed people altogether. The screenings are private. His drive-in images have no cars. This might be a metaphor for the audience lost in the cinema experience, but you donimagine Sugimoto is much interested in the cinema experience or, indeed, people at all.

Even his images of people arenreal people. They are waxworks somehow brought to life by his meticulous after-Holbein lighting. People move too much, he says. donshoot people, only dead people. Unless there is some unavoidable situation. Lots of people ask me to take their portrait, of course. And I always say, die first.’”(Sugimoto did, however, shoot the architect Peter Zumthor recently, but, he says, he was accommodatingly still and enough’.)

In 1980 he took the first of his ongoing series of seascapes from a clifftop in Jamaica. They now number in the hundreds, taken from outcroppings and promontories around the world. Again there are no signs of life or human activity. No ships, planes, wakes or vapour trails. They are mesmerising studies-precise, black and white, Sugimoto having lugged his huge camera into position-of the play of light (day and night), water and air with the horizon always dead centre, even when it is not clearly there at all. They are also, he says, an attempt to recreate the moment when man first gazed out to sea and wondered at it. When light itself was younger, newer, more freshly baked by the Big Bang.

Not that Sugimoto is much interested in ’either. Not if you mean by moment some magical, unrepeatable constellation of people, light, history, motive, accident and all those things that people imagine a photograph is good at

capturing. Sugimoto is not interested in moments, heinterested in forever.

Sugimoto has ideas, he says, and wants to take pictures of them. have my vision first. And then I go out and let my vision happen. In reality. And photograph it as proof of my imagination.’

 about light

A couple of years ago, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the artistic director of Hermes, visited Sugimoto in his studio. Sugimoto had exhibited at the Forum Hermes in Ginza and developed a relationship with Dumas’father, Jean-Louis. Pierre-Alexis decided that Sugimotoprism Polaroids would provide the perfect material for the third edition of the companyHermes Editeur series of art-inspired carre scarves (Josef Albers and Daniel Buren were the previous picks). Sugimoto is not much for collaborations as a rule, he says.

usually say no. But IJapanese, so I can say no in a very polite way.’But» something about the Hermes idea intrigued him: the change in medium, how to get the colours of the Polaroids onto the scarves. And it wasneasy.

Sugimoto and Pierre-Alexis picked 20 Polaroids that would be printed onto 20 carres, each measuring 140 sq cm, but produced only in editions of seven each. The real challenge was getting the subtle gradations of colour onto the scarves. As Kozo Fujimoto, communication artistic director for Hermes in Japan and a collaborator on the project, explained, traditional screen-printing methods werenup to the job. Even screen-printing 40 layers would have created relatively crude bands of colour. Instead-and after months of testing-the company invented a new inkjet printing method. And an enormous new machine to do it. Finally happy that the scarves are their own kind of wonderful,

Hermes and Sugimoto are currently presenting them at this yearedition of Art Basel.

Sugimoto, of course, has played no small part in establishing a place for photography at art fairs, auctions, museums and on the walls of well-heeled collectors around the world.

He was one of the first international photographers’Sugimoto is an enthusiastic Duchampian-and ita position he carefully nurtures and protects. (It took Sugimoto a long time to make much of a living from photography, although he had a profitable sideline as Manhattanleading dealer in Japanese antiquities). On the wall of his New York studio is a large chart with pins marking the whereabouts of each of his pictures. There is a gold pin if it is housed in a museum. And Sugimoto is a conceptualist who does as much as he can to define and control those concepts, a prolific and convincing writer, and an eloquent, surprisingly worldly talker with an open manner and a dry wit.

As a marquee art brand, museums around the world are keen to slap some Sugimoto on their walls. Or not. In 2007, he showed at the Daniel Libeskind-designed extension to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Libeskind sent Sueimoto Dlans of the building to helo

Sugimoto unfurls the plans on the floor now, shaking his head.

at this! Itvery difficult to read and the walls arenstraight,’he says.

And itnot just Libeskind, he says, who is guilty of willingly difficult architecture. of the starchitect-designed exhibition spaces are really bad. They are intentionally giving unusable spaces to artists. They never think how the art will be shown there. In fact, they want a space without art; they only care about their own space.’

Architecture, as you can tell, is another thing that Sugimoto thinks a lot about. Good buildings, bad buildings. And he developed his own photographic test to discover which buildings had an immutable, eternal rightness.

He turned his camera on much of the modernist canon and set his focus to twice infinity, somewhere far beyond the building. In simple terms, the building is then out of focus but, as far as Sugimoto is concerned, laid bare in some fundamental way. the surface disappears and you should be left with a strongly spirited design. Architecture should work as sculpture, it should have a strong shape. The ones with a strong shape survive my attack. I photographed some of Peter Zumthorbuildings recently and theyvery strong.’

Sugimotointerest in architecture, though, stretches far beyond these shimmering spirits. Another part of his studio is given over to a large model of what will become the Sugimoto Foundation. It is the product of Sugimotoown architecture office and work should start this year on a clifftop plot facing the Pacific a couple of hours from his studio.

The Foundation will include a loom-long, but just 2m-wide exhibition space; a tea room; an enormous open-air stage made entirely out of optical-quality glass; a 15th-century temple gate; and a Noh theatre with shows written and produced by Sugimoto (always the Renaissance man). It will also be a place where he can shoot his seascapes. Zealous airport security officials increasingly restrict the movement of his suspicious-looking packages of 10x8 film.

a combination of all my interests,’he says. have to do something interesting with my money rather than give it to my government.’?

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