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A panoramic overview of Hiroshi Sugimoto

The Japanese photographer’s work spans six decades and, rather than seeking to capture the magic of the decisive moment, aims to evoke ‘the infinite and the immeasurable’ 

Born in Tokyo in 1948, Hiroshi Sugimoto moved to Los Angeles in 1970 to study photography at the Art Center College of Design, and soon after relocated to New York. Since then, the artist’s philosophical curiosity has been focused on the nature of time — present time, individual memories, the ancient past, and concerns about the future. Under Sugimoto’s lens, photography no longer connotes the quick satisfaction of the snapshot or the magic of the decisive moment. Rather, his photographs evoke the infinite and the immeasurable.

Sugimoto uses a large-format view camera with 8 x 10 inch black-and-white film, and works in a traditional wet-darkroom making perfect print enlargements on double-weight gelatin silver paper. His works are included in the permanent collections of Tate Modern in London, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The 15 works in our Photographs sale in April 2016 were selected from his major series, including Seascapes, Dioramas, Theaters, Sea of Buddhas, Architecture, Colors of Shadow and Portraits. Here the artist himself and Darius Himes, International Head of Photographs at Christie’s, offer insights into these important bodies of work.

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  • Diorama series

Hiroshi Sugimoto: ‘Upon first arriving in New York in 1974, I did the tourist thing. Eventually I visited the Natural History Museum, where I made a curious discovery: the stuffed animals positioned before painted backdrops looked utterly fake, yet by taking a quick peek with one eye closed, all perspective vanished, and suddenly they looked very real. I'd found a way to see the world as a camera does. However fake the subject, once photographed, it's as good as real.’

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  • Theaters series

Hiroshi Sugimoto: ‘One night I thought of taking a photographic exposure of a film at a movie theatre while the film was being projected. I imagined how it could be possible to shoot an entire movie with my camera.’

‘Then I had the clear vision that the movie screen would show up on the picture as a white rectangle. I thought it could look like a very brilliant white rectangle coming out from the screen, shining throughout the whole theatre. It might seem very interesting and mysterious, even in some way religious.’

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  • Seascapes

Darius Himes: ‘One of Sugimoto’s earliest memories is of being taken to see the sea. The expansive views of the oceans we are presented with would have been the same 50,000 years ago to early humans, as they probably will be 50,000 years in the future. There are no birds, boats, or land. Often, there are not even any clouds.’ 

Hiroshi Sugimoto: ‘Humans have changed the landscape so much, but images of the sea could be shared with primordial people. I just project my imagination on to the viewer, even the first human being.’

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  • Sea of Buddha

Darius Himes: ‘The art scene Sugimoto knew in New York in the 1970s was dominated by minimal and conceptual art. It occurred to him that similar motives inspired the making of art in 12th-century Japan. In the Sea of Buddha series, conceived in 1988 and realised in 1995, Sugimoto visited a Kyoto temple that dates to to 1266 A.D. to make a series of images of its 1,000 Senju Kannon figures — the bodhisattva with 1,000 arms — over 10 days.’

Hiroshi Sugimoto: ‘After seven years of red tape I was at last granted permission to photograph in the temple of Sanjusangendo (Hall of Thirty-Three Bays). I had all late-medieval and early-modern embellishments removed, and the fluorescent lighting turned off, to recreate the splendour of the thousand bodhisattvas glistening in the light of the morning sun rising over the Higashiyama hills — as the Kyoto aristocracy might have seen them in the Heian period (794-1185). Will today's conceptual art survive another 800 years?’

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  • Architecture

Darius Himes: ‘In 1996, Sugimoto was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago to capture the essence of universally acclaimed buildings. By defocusing the lens and thereby blurring the specific features of the buildings, Sugimoto distilled each structure to its core form in both light and shadow, highlighting the vision of the architect — as seen in Church of the Light, Tadao Ando, Eiffel Tower (lot 121), and Brooklyn Bridge (lot 130).

Hiroshi Sugimoto: ‘I decided to trace the beginnings of our age via architecture. Pushing my old large-format camera’s focal length out to twice-infinity — with no stops on the bellows rail, the view through the lens was an utter blur — I discovered that superlative architecture survives, however dissolved, the onslaught of blurred photography. Thus I began erosion-testing architecture for durability, completely melting away many of the buildings in the process.’

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  • Portrait

Darius Himes: ‘The Portrait series, begun in the 1990s, presents photographs of wax figurines of important figures from the history of politics, religion, aristocracy and popular culture found at wax museums around the world, including most famously, Madame Tussauds. The artist placed the figures in front of a black background and carefully lit each, bringing a sense of immediacy to the subjects.

‘As such, Princess Diana seems to have been captured with a tender smile; Winston Churchill (lot 127), appears as if en route to greet the photographer. In doing so, Sugimoto presents great historical figures in intimate, realistic portraits.’

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  • Colours of Shadow

Hiroshi Sugimoto: ‘I live in the shadow... I like shadow, that’s why I became a black-and-white photographer.’