Eternal time posits the existence of paradise, while infinite time does not. Henri Cartier-Bresson found human warmth in his photographs, which he thought as a “decisive moment” that entered into the eternal, whereas Hiroshi Sugimoto sees beauty and inspiration in the coldness of the universe. He recognizes that the earth is our home, but that we are not at home here.
Instead of focusing on the instant, Sugimoto has always done the opposite, using a long exposure — throughout the length of a movie, harnessing its light to illuminate a darkened theater, for example — to get his image. About his photographs of the ocean and dioramas, he has stated:
I was concerned with revealing an ancient stage of human memory through the medium of photography. Whether it is individual memory or the cultural memory of mankind itself, my work is about returning to the past and remembering where we came from and how we came about.
In his exhibition “Revolution” at the Museum Brandhorst, Munich (October 25, 2012–February 10, 2013), Sugimoto showed seventeen photographs, fifteen of which were panoramic black-and-white views of the ocean at night. Sugimoto took these photographs over the course of a decade, 1986–1997, but this is the first time he has exhibited them. Although he is well known for his ocean photographs, “Revolution” shows a different side of his relation to this subject. As the exhibition title suggests, he is trying to wipe away his own past, in order to go forward.
The format of the fifteen photographs is 94 x 47 inches, twice as long as they are tall. The images are rotated 90 degrees, so that in almost all cases the horizon divides the photograph into two unequal rectangles, one black and one gray. In the exceptions, he evenly bifurcates the rectangle. The black area traces the path of the moon and/or stars through Sugimoto’s long time exposures, while the gray area depicts the sea.
A lot has been written about Sugimoto’s connection to minimalism and abstraction, and Armine Zweite, who wrote the principal essay in the accompanying catalog, continues to see a connection. I had a different response. In “Revolution,” the panoramic format and time exposure add traces of time passing to his work, largely because the passage of the moon and stars were part of the subject. This wasn’t true of his other ocean photographs, which he began taking in 1980 and has returned to as a subject ever since. In those photographs, all of which are the same size, Sugimoto bifurcated the composition into equal halves, into cloudless sky and ocean.
In both groups of photographs there is no indication of where we were standing, no ground to offer a sense of stability. We seem to be floating in the air before an immense expanse in which there is no sign of life, human or otherwise. We are — to cite the title of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction classic — strangers in a strange land. This is the “ancient stage of human memory” to which Sugimoto wants to return viewers through the medium of photography — the primordial world that existed before language. And with that return comes a state of wonderment and quiet awe. We are seeing the world as our ancestors might have seen it — immense, serene, indifferent and unknowable. If anything, the world was unsympathetic to the rise of humans and did not welcome us.
In the photographs of “Revolution,” Sugimoto worked with a panoramic format and time exposures that registered the passage of the moon and stars as a luminescent band and faint white lines on black fields. I think the reason that Sugimoto hasn’t shown these photographs until now is because a conventional presentation would have emphasized their documentary representations of the passage of time. Such a presentation would have been in keeping with Bresson’s “decisive moment.” It would also have established a kinship with the photographs of Ansel Adams. Sugimoto wanted neither of these possibilities.
By rotating the photograph to a vertical position, Sugimoto compels us to look at the work from different, rather uncomfortable angles as well as correct it in our mind’s eye. Seeing, he reminds us, is an unpredictable dance between the physical and the mental; it isn’t a purely bodily act, despite what the formalists claimed. Whereas a conventional presentation might be stunning to look at, it would not open up a space for reflection, certainly not to the extent that a vertical presentation does.
At the same time, by presenting two or three photographs in a dark room, Sugimoto breaks down our viewing experience into discrete encounters. He wants us to address difference rather than focus on similarity. The photographs underscore his belief that photography isn’t solely about light — it is about light and darkness and the interaction of the two. As Sugimoto frames it, this interaction evokes time as an immense and unknowable continuum of which we are an infinitesimal part. And while critics have, as I previously stated, pointed to his connection to minimalism, I see his link to painting differently.
Beginning with the movie theater photographs, which he started in 1978, Sugimoto has made a number of bodies of work in which he collapsed the representational and the abstract. The movie theater photographs present the screen as a radiant center surrounded by black, often ornate architectural details and rows of empty seats — a rectangle within a rectangle. They are the opposite of Malevich’s “Black Square” paintings. The ocean photographs, which he started making in 1980, show a rectangle divided horizontally into two equal halves. In their color and their sense of tranquility, they recall certain works of the 1960s by Brice Marden. And yet, Sugimoto’s photographs are not purely abstract — we see the movie theater and the ocean. For Sugimoto, abstraction isn’t rooted in ideas, but in things.
By rotating the panoramic photograph to a vertical orientation, Sugimoto is able to lift the image out of the realm of anecdote and shift it into a space of reflection. The luminescent band and the trace lines of the stars — as they traverse the extreme span of the vertical format — become reminders of infinite time rather than evidence of daily passage. In changing photography’s relationship to time, Sugimoto revolutionized its capacity to be a medium of philosophical speculation.
Sitting in a darkened room, looking at Sugimoto’s photographs, I began to feel as if I was lost in time. I certainly was no longer in the present, but whatever past I found myself in was also remote. The quietness of the room took on an otherworldly sense. I don’t know of any other photographer who can transport me to a state of such calmness and foreboding. For a moment I felt as if I could learn to let go of my body, that by looking at Sugimoto’s photographs I could come to accept time’s indifference to human existence. And then I got up and left the room as I came, quietly.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Revolution continues at Museum Brandhorst (Kunstareal, Theresienstrasse 35a, 80333, Munich, Germany) through February 10.