Studio Visit: Hiroshi Sugimoto

We visit the artist in Tokyo where he discusses his celebrated images of old American movie theatres and shows us the first photographs he ever took when he was a 9-year-old trainspotter

‘The most advanced evolution of life is a human brain… that’s why I want to go back to the point where humans gained consciousness.’ Hiroshi Sugimoto is discussing his practice from his 7th-floor Tokyo apartment — a minimalist retreat high above the city, its rooms cut with streams of light.

‘I practice photography, architecture, performing arts — many things,’ Sugimoto explains. Today, however, it is his photographic works, which have become among his most renowned, that we are here to discuss. Working with a large-format camera, he often uses long exposures to capture scenes over an extended period of time. 

The approach is one that has resulted in some of Sugimoto’s most famous works, such as the Theatres  series, begun in 1978. To make these images of American movie theatres — using only the light from the screen — the artist matches the exposure to the film’s running time to distil a feature-length production into a single frame.

Sugimoto’s interest in photography began when he was a child — now aged 69, he still keeps the first album of photographs he made when he was just 9 years old, in 1957. With the trains in a Tokyo station as their subject, these early shots demonstrate a remarkable awareness of composition — indeed, only the height of the camera indicates that they were taken by a young boy. 

One of his latest projects, the design for the Odawara Art Foundation, is set to open in Kanagawa in 2017. ‘Architecture is the most beautiful illusion that you can ever make,’ he observes. ‘The human presence may not be for ever, of course — look at Greek or Roman times, or an Egyptian Pyramid. In five or six thousand years, if people still remain, they’ll look at the ruins of modern civilisation. 

‘A sense of time is a very important factor of early human consciousness,’ the artist continues. As Sugimoto becomes more distanced from that 9-year-old boy at the train station, his meditations on time take on a more personal tone. ‘I’m going backwards; people are going forwards,’ he muses. ‘The gap between me and the world is getting bigger and bigger. But I don’t care. I just do what I want to do.’

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