I find it quite interesting how great photographers actually become photographers and in Hiroshi Sugimotos case, it seemed it was a means to an end to allow him to stay in the US a little longer. More so is how he became reacquainted with eastern philosophy that coupled with his own way of looking at the world would stay with him for the rest of his life.
One of the first things that struck me in looking at his early work, is that he continued to add to it, seascapes was one such example where he continued to add to it when the opportunity to travel to different places arose. Quite interesting to think of a body of work in such a way, as something that is never completely finished. There is a very abstract nature to this body of work, as there very little other detail such as the sky to focus on. You just have the pattern of the water presented as a piece of art. Enjoying landscape work as I do, it is interesting to see photography used in such a way.
Dioramas was a body of work Sugimoto undertook at the Museum of Natural History in the mid 70’s, interesting piece of work, but one I struggled to comprehend fully. The series presents us with photographs of the life like exhibits at the Museum. There is a sense of realism here, largely due to camera and developing techniques employed here. Theatres (Theaters) on the other hand I found oddly attractive, though I think it is mainly due to the light source being a giant illuminated screen to provide the highlights and shadows in the resulting shots. Again this another body of work Sugimoto has continued to add to over the years.
Education and Early training
Photography, in Sugimoto’s youth, was only beginning to emerge as an art form. He did not initially consider the discipline as a profession and instead studied politics and sociology at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. Sugimoto was very uncertain of his future after graduation and spent time travelling, visiting the Soviet Union, Poland, Western Europe and the United States of America. His decision, in 1971, to apply to study commercial photography at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, was motivated largely by his desire for a visa that would allow him to spend an extended period in California. Sugimoto, noticing that American students had an interest in Zen Buddhism and realizing that his own interest in foreign cultures had led him to neglect Japanese culture, began to study Eastern philosophy informally. Sugimoto has noted that such pursuits meant he was not a diligent student while enrolled at the ArtCenter; his understanding of Zen Buddhism, however, had a substantial influence on subsequent work.
After graduating, Sugimoto returned briefly to Japan before moving to New York in 1974, where he held a succession of jobs as assistant to various commercial photographers, all of which he has described as ending in mutual dissatisfaction. Sugimoto spent much of the late 1970s and early 1980s visiting shows at small galleries in Soho and considering his own relationship to contemporary art; in 1976, he began to take photographs at the Museum of Natural History, which would lead to his first substantive series of photographs, entitled Dioramas. Sugimoto has described his process of artistic exploration in this period as relatively slow, but many of his best-known series were begun in these years; he took his first images for Theaters in 1978 and for Seascapes in 1980, and Sugimoto would continue to expand on these series over subsequent decades.
In 1979, Sugimoto and his wife opened a Japanese antique shop on West Broadway, opposite Walter de Maria’s Broken Kilometre. This shop provided an independent income source and a space that could be used as a darkroom, and Sugimoto met many artists central to the Minimal and Conceptual Art movements, including Isamu Noguchi, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin alongside de Maria. These artists shared an interest in Japanese art and philosophy and were regular visitors to Sugimoto’s shop; his circle subsequently expanded as they introduced him to other artists in New York, including On Kawara and Nam June Paik. Sugimoto is often seen less as a photographer than as a Conceptual artist working with photography, and his exposure to Soho’s artistic community in this period provided a context that shaped and has continued to inform his work.
In 1980, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and he had his first major solo show in 1981, at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York. Sugimoto established himself as a photographer using a large-format wooden camera, working only in black and white due to his belief that color photography appeared artificial and undermined the viewer’s belief in the image. He has always developed his own film and mixes the chemicals for this by hand, following the recipe of Ansel Adams. Despite his growing success, Sugimoto continued to run his antique shop until 1989; after closing it, he continued to collect antiques and began to incorporate these and other objects into his work.
Sugimoto’s 1995 solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York led to greater recognition and the financial means to expand his artistic practice. The artist began photographing modern architectural sites that year and was subsequently able to expand on this series through extensive travel. He subsequently began designing interior spaces in which to take photographs and designing objects to photograph, which were subsequently displayed alongside the resulting images. This work led to a number of commissions for more ambitious spatial projects and Sugimoto, hiring three architects with whom to work, started an architectural practice, New Material Research Laboratory, in 2008. Sugimoto’s architectural work can be seen as an expansion of, rather than a departure from, his photographic work, giving him greater control over the presentation of his images in museums and allowing him to explore his core themes in multiple dimensions.
Sugimoto has continued to add images to his early series, including Dioramas, Theaters and Seascapes, throughout his career, expanding these groups as he identifies new locations in which to shoot. In the projects he has recently begun, Sugimoto has gravitated toward architecture, designing a number of restaurants and teahouses. His architectural work, like his photographic practice, is guided by his belief that minimalism and simplicity in aesthetics can prolong an audience’s attention and generate deeper focus. He has spent the bulk of the last decade focused on the Enoura Observatory in Odawara, Japan, which opened in October 2017, housing Sugimoto’s collection of Japanese antiques alongside a teahouse and spaces for the production and performance of traditional Japanese theater. The structure, overlooking the ocean, provides a view of the horizon analogous to Sugimoto’s Seascapes and Sugimoto selected the site for its proximity to the place where he first, as a child, began thinking about the ocean as an orientation point in human consciousness.
The Legacy of Hiroshi Sugimoto
Sugimoto’s work has had a substantial influence on contemporary understanding of photography and has, in concert with work by critics, curators, and other photographers over the same period, served to expand the possibilities of the medium. He serves as a bridge between photography’s craft tradition and digital future, connecting analog techniques with concepts of dematerialization that hint at the vastness of humanity’s past and future. In creating work which served to question, rather than simply document, the world, Sugimoto expanded the field such that many other photographers have found space in which to pursue similar enquiry. His visual influence can be seen in the work of many younger photographers; some, like Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre and Takashi Homma, echo Sugimoto’s removed compositions of architecture and interiors, while others, like Rika Noguchi, have continued Sugimoto’s consideration of light and color. Sugimoto continues to work as a photographer and to design spaces for the display of his own work and that of others and it appears certain that his influence will grow as artists interested in his photographic work mature and his architectural work reaches a wider audience.
“Hiroshi Sugimoto Artist Overview and Analysis”. [Internet]. 2019. TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Anna Blair
First published on 25 Feb 2018. Updated and modified regularly.
[Accessed 28 Oct 2019]