Hiroshi Sugimoto (born 1948) is one of Japan’s leading contemporary photographers. His work is celebrated for its unparalleled technical quality and its poetic and philosophical approach to its subject matter.
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Hiroshi Sugimoto was born on 23rd February 1948 in Tokyo. He took his earliest photographs in school when he photographed film footage of Audrey Hepburn as it played in a movie theatre. Sugimoto graduated from Saint Paul’s University, Tokyo in 1970 with a degree in politics and sociology but decided to retrain as an artist and went to study at the Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles, graduating in 1974. A year later he moved to New York where he began working as a dealer in Japanese antiques.
Sugimoto has worked in series throughout his career, each of which focus on a different subject matter while exploring overlapping and similar themes relating to time and the nature of the photographic medium. He describes his work as ‘time exposed’ and each of his series relate to the concept of time through time travel, humanity’s natural history and photography’s complex relation to the notion of time.
His earliest work is from the series Dioramas which he began in 1976. Sugimoto produced black and white photographs of displays in natural history museums, frequently the American Museum of Natural History. He photographed polar bears on fake ice floes, monkeys calling to each other from the branches of trees in a plastic jungle and vultures fighting over carrion in front of painted skies. He has returned to this series on a number of occasions, most recently in 2012, creating multi-layered images which consider the concept of time in relation to the preservation of natural histories in both a museum context and through the permanence of a photograph.
Two years after he began working on Dioramas, Sugimoto started working on his series Theatres in which he photographed old American movie palaces and drive-ins using a fold up 4 x 5 inch format camera and tripod. In this series Sugimoto would open the camera shutter as the film began and expose the camera film for the duration of the movie, with only the film projector providing a light source. Centring the composition of these photographs around the luminescent screen, the architectural details and seating of the theatres are only just illuminated by the projection’s glow, lending the photographs an eerie and surreal atmosphere. The project was born out of Sugimoto’s fascination with condensing time into a single frozen moment.
In 1980 Sugimoto began working on his ongoing series Seascapes in which he photographs the sea and sky in locations all over the world using a large format camera with varying exposure lengths. The resulting images vary in tone dependent on exposure length and time of day, with the sea and sky blurring as the horizon line perfectly bifurcates the photograph.
More recent projects include a series of large-format photographs of notable buildings around the world, commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, portraits of waxworks of significant historical figures, a series focusing on one of Richard Serra’s Torqued Spiral sculptures, photographed at dawn and dusk over a period of five days and a series of large scale works created without a camera by using a 400,000 volt generator to apply an electrical charge directly onto film.
Exhibitions and Awards
Sugimoto has been the recipient of numerous awards including a National Endowment for the Arts in 1982, the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, New York in 1999 and most recently the National Arts Club Medal of Honor in Photography in 2018. He has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, the Serpentine Gallery, London and the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris. His work is also included in the permanent collections of several museums including the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, the National Gallery in London and the Smithsonian Institute of Art, Washington D.C.