Hiroshi Sugimoto's Urban Visions
Published as a feature, with photo essay attached, Metropolis magazine, Novemer 2003
By Tess Taylor
Hiroshi Sugimoto, a Japanese born artist who now splits his time between New York and Tokyo, is a small man in his mid fifties. He has a light step, bright eyes, and a keen expression. Something about him recalls a cross between a bird and a Zen monk. During his thirty-year career (which includes both a Guggenheim award and a bevy of international showings) he's received critical acclaim for photographing four things: old movie theaters; wax-figure portraits; the sea meeting the horizon; and, most recently, architecture.
Sugimoto's work is marked by persistent conceptual rigor, but he doesn't like to link his series too closely. "They are, I think, each about time," he says. "But about different facets." He's got a whimsical way of describing his early career as an artist:
"It was 1970. I came to this country to be a flower child, and I lived in California," he says with a chuckle. "But I needed a visa. I chose art school. It was an ill-fated beginning. Only later, my seriousness surprised me."
The development of his architecture series, now on display at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, follows similar lines. "At the MoCA, they asked me to think about photographing architecture. It was my first commission. I said, 'I'll think about it.' For Japanese, this often means 'no.' But I really did think about it. And then I decided to photograph buildings."
Sugimoto's seriousness surprised him again. What emerged is not so much a series of portraits of architecture as a series of meditations on the role monuments play in our lives. The subject matter is familiar enough: He shoots familiar modern architectural triumphs. Among them are the Brooklyn Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the Seagram Building, and the Villa Savoye. One exception, the 3000-year-old Temple of Dendur, is in its own way a modern creation. Its transportation out of Egypt and reconstruction in the Metropolitan Museum of Art ranks among the twentieth century's great feats of engineering. But if the building forms are recognizable from postcards, tourist guides, or even architecture class, Sugimoto has set out to render them unfamiliar. His work makes the modernity we might take for granted seem a little strange. "Architecture, is after all, just the biggest symbol of an idea that we are modern," he says.
So, in large form portraits, Sugimoto captures icons in a way that dislocates even the best-known fašade. He unsettles them. Their features are blurred. They are taken from odd vantage points. They're fragmented. Glaringly near, the spokes on the spire of the Chrysler Building splay in a glittering, indistinct fan. The Eiffel Tower is reduced to a dark, unmistakable taper. Rockefeller Center dissolves into patterns of black and white light. The blurring is evocative and sometimes eerie: it seems to rupture the everyday relationship we have with buildings. Familiar landmarks seem to hover on some almost unconscious border between being remembered and being forgotten.
"The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was the best way to photograph the effect of architecture," Sugimoto says. "It has a kind of deep structure, like a myth."
Sugimoto says he isn't certain how he chooses his subjects. "I look through the guidebooks of twentieth century architecture, and then I think about shapes. I only want to capture those buildings with true sculptural quality," he said. "These persist in the mind," he says. "The others, we forget. They fade away."
Once he has picked a building, Sugimoto looks for a way to see it. "I spend maybe a week there. I walk around it all times of day and night." To photograph, Sugimoto focuses a very large camera on an undefined point, far in the distance. The focus point is not infinity, but double infinity. "This is my secret," he says. " In this way, I am use the camera to look back in time. I am trying to enter the architect's mind, to focus not on what we see now, but on the first moment of the building's conception. I go back in time before the building was ever built." Sugimoto gives a little laugh. "Of course I must focus on a place that doesn't exist."
In the process of photographing architecture, Sugimoto also took it up as a hobby. He's just finished building a Buddhist temple in Naoshima, Japan. For an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago this spring, he designed his own installation. Like his photography, the layout was deceptively simple. On two ground floor galleries, monolithic rows of gray panels faced outwards, framing a series of doorways. The panels threw crosshatched patterns on the gallery floor. They were reminiscent of the alleys between skyscrapers, but perhaps also of Stonehenge. In any case, to get to the photos, one had to enter and navigate between the tall, shadowy structures. "I wanted to heighten a sense of the way spaces govern us," Sugimoto says.
Is it a critique of modern architecture? Maybe, subtly. These aren't the heroic shots of an Ezra Stoller. They are more dreamlike and questioning. They seem to offer a kind of openness, a sort of hazy space for re-imagining monuments, a place to rethink pieces of the modern world.
"It photograph the most idealistic phase- the time when just the core elements were emerging," Sugimoto says. "I try to get at the shape that was even then only being born. After all, when it is done, even if it is good, it is not its ideal," he says, with a rueful laugh. "We try, and try, but all we are all left with is a lousy building."