Sunday, January 04, 2009

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Union City Drive In, Union City, 1993, Hiroshi Sugimoto

Lugubrious Drollery has a long-standing editorial policy of expounding at some length on topics of which the author has little actual knowledge. In keeping with this proud tradition, I would like to discuss Japanese photography--specifically, the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. My chief exposure to Japanese visual arts heretofore consists of a few abortive attempts to make it past the intermission of Akira Kurosawa's cinematic masterpiece, "The Seven Samurai." Perhaps it is the strain of concentrating on subtitles for such a prolonged period of time, or perhaps the movie is just plain too long, but so far, I haven't been able to get through the whole thing.

Despite my conspicuous lack of credentials as a critic of Asian art, I would like to recommend that the reader check out Mr. Sugimoto's web site. I'm putting the link at the end of this article. Otherwise I risk people hyperlinking away midpost, never to return.

I recently purchased a new camera. The package included several items, such as a genuine Nikon camera bag too small to be of practical use, a cleaning kit complete with Q-tips, and a subscription to PC Photo magazine. On the last page of the most recent issue is a photo by Erik Almas, who has done a series of portraits combining backgrounds of 1930s landscape paintings, taxidermy animals, and live models. The result is quite stunning. Again, a link to samples appears below. Bear with me (once you click the link, you may appreciate the pun, or perhaps not).

Mr. Almas cites Mr. Sugimoto as an influence. Sugimoto did a series of photos of dioramas at the Museum of Natural History in New York, which he describes at his web site:
Upon first arriving in New York in 1974, I did the tourist thing. Eventually I visited the Natural History Museum, where I made a curious discovery: the stuffed animals positioned before painted backdrops looked utterly fake, yet by taking a quick peek with one eye closed, all perspective vanished, and suddenly they looked very real. I'd found a way to see the world as a camera does. However fake the subject, once photographed, it's as good as real.
This was a moment of artistic epiphany, similar to e.e. cummings thinking, "I'm really sick of using the shift key. Hmmm..."

Polar Bear 1976, Hiroshi Sugimoto

He has also photographed at Madame Tussaud's museum, including some gruesome displays (like the Lindbergh baby's kidnapper in the electric chair) which have since been removed in an act of political correctness. Another of his techniques involves keeping the shutter open during an entire movie in a theater, indoor or outdoor. The result is a picture of the theater with a radiant white screen, as in the example at the beginning of this article. Nothing is there, yet the entire movie is there.

I mentioned at the opening of this post that this blog is built on a foundation of sketchy knowledge. Another of our (now I lapse into the editorial we) guiding principles is efficiency. Why waste valuable time coming up with an original idea when the internet is a veritable cornucopia of ideas, a few of which are original? With that in mind, I have, once again, resorted to Google to find this quote from Michael P. Silva's blog Zuihitzu:
Sugimoto isn’t showing us the world in a different way, he is showing us his internal vision and using the world as his materials.
Well said, and to me, this is the essence of the best photography.

That's it. You are now free to move about the internet. Here are the links:

Hiroshi Sugimoto's Web Site
Erik Almas Photos
Zuihitzu: Random Thoughts on Photography, Art, and Design

1 comment:

Zhoen said...

You haven't made it through Seven Samurai?

Worry about the subtitles less, put on the dub on the DVD if you have to, but, but, but... give it another go. Read the plot ahead of time, see The Magnificent Seven - it's the same story, and then let this film wash over you.

I think I'll go watch it again tonight.


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