The question that Hiroshi Sugimoto asked himself in 1976, as a 28-year-old photographer influenced by Zen Buddhism, sounded a bit like a koan: What happens if you shoot a whole movie in a single frame? To discover the answer, he smuggled a large-format camera into the rundown St. Marks Cinema in Manhattan’s East Village and set it up at the back of the theater. The exposure time was the full length of the film; the only light used was that from the running projector. The resulting photograph gave him the answer he wanted: The gleaming white screen looked like a portal to another dimension.
That trip to St. Marks Cinema sparked a photo series that now spans 40 years: Sugimoto has photographed classic movie palaces built in the 1920s and ‘30s, drive-ins from the ‘40s and ‘50s, the ruins of abandoned theaters in Newark and Boston, and historic theaters in Europe, all with a large-format camera and film-length exposure time. Theaters, a new book by Damiani/Matsumoto Editions, compiles 130 of these now-famous photographs, 19 of which have never before been published. In “My Inner Theater,” an essay included in the book, Sugimoto describes his thinking at the time he began the series:
“I was thinking a great deal about the invention of photography. A photograph fixes dead reality in the form of an afterimage. But when you are shown a series of those same afterimages, dead reality seems to come back to life — that is what a movie is … To watch a two-hour movie is simply to look at 172,800 photographic afterimages. Through sheer excess, the dead afterimages seem to come alive again. Since ancient Egyptian times — no, since the birth of civilization itself — the human race has been fascinated by the idea of resurrection. I wanted to photograph a movie, with all its appearance of life and motion, in order to stop it again. What I felt was a sense of vocation: I must use photography as a means to shut away the ghosts resurrected by the excess of photographic afterimages.
“My dream was to capture 170,000 photographs on a single frame of film. The image I had inside my brain was of a gleaming white screen inside a dark movie theater. The light created by an excess of 170,000 exposures would be the embodiment or manifestation of something awe-inspiring and divine.”
He was right: In these photographs, which seem to condense not just all the light, but all the emotion contained in an entire film, theaters appear as divine and awe-inspiring as cathedrals.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Theaters is available from Damiani/Matsumoto Press for $60.