Hiroshi Sugimoto left his native Japan in 1970 to study art in Los Angeles in 1971 at a time when Minimalism and Conceptual art—both of which informed his work—dominated art practice. Inspired by the systemic aspects of Minimalist painting and sculpture, he has consistently explored several themes with rigorous seriality throughout his career.
The white screen that reappears in his Theaters series (begun in 1978) is itself the result of shooting the projection of a feature film. Photographing drive-ins, golden-age cinema palaces, and modern movie houses, he uses an exposure determined by the length of the screening. As each frame of film flickers by, the shifting action and light both cancels and accumulates until the film, shown in its entirety, is recorded as a bright, blank screen, appearing empty of imagery while actually filled to overflowing. Sugimoto calls this “time exposed”—the collecting, in one still image, of moments passed.
His Seascapes series (begun in 1999) are photographed with cartographic precision. Each image, titled for the body of water depicted, is comprised of sea and sky bisected by the horizon. Rather than taming the subject through repeated documentation, the series grows more awesome and sublime, and the images reveal that only the temporary atmospherics—the thickness of fog or stillness of the water—distinguish one sea from the next.
In his Portraits (begun in 1999), commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim, Sugimoto rekindles the dialogue between painting and the medium of mechanical reproduction. Sugimoto isolated wax figures from staged vignettes in waxworks museums, posed them in three-quarterlength view, and illuminated them to create haunting Rembrandt-esque portraits of historical figures, such as Henry VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte, Fidel Castro, and Princess Diana. His painterly renditions, lush with detail, recall the various paintings from which the wax figures were originally drawn. Through layers of reproduction—from subject to painting to wax statue to photograph—these images most consciously convey the collapsing of time and the retelling of history.
Based on the long-standing association of black-and-white photography with the recording of truth, Sugimoto’s photo-documents playfully reveal the illusion of this assumption. Sugimoto’s Portraits provide photographic “evidence” of historical subjects and events previously uncaptured on film, just as his Theaters record what cannot be seen, the passage of time, and his Seascapes pinpoint what cannot be relocated.