Focus on the collection: Hiroshi Sugimoto
Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto is known for photographic works that encourage a closer look at the ties between living and dead, real and imagined, and the limits and abilities of photography to record and re-record history. Using a large-format camera and meticulous reprinting, Sugimoto creates images with extremely high resolution, depicting his subjects with an almost uncanny clarity.1
Using photography to create additional layers of historical reconstruction and interpretation, Sugimoto’s past projects include Diorama, for which he photographed animal dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and Portraits, featuring life-sized photographic portraits of historical figures, based on wax sculpture displays found at museums around the world.
Sugimoto’s White-mantled Colobus — an image from his Diorama series — is part of the National Gallery of Canada collection. With the original museum text panels out of sight, and glare from the display glass invisible, the photograph looks as though it could have been taken in the jungle.2 This effect forces viewers to consider the photographer’s proximity to the wildlife, the life or lifelessness of the wildlife, and the many layers of detachment that separate us from the original moment the scene is capturing. The cycle of historical re-interpretation includes the diorama itself, interpreted by the artists who assembled it, Sugimoto’s re-interpretation through his camera, and the individual interpretations of viewers, informed by their own experiences.
In a statement on his website about Diorama, Sugimoto writes, “When I first arrived in New York in 1974, I visited many of the city's tourist sites, one of which was the American Museum of Natural History. I made a curious discovery while looking at the exhibition of animal dioramas: 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 had found a way to see the world as a camera does. However fake the subject, once photographed, it's as good as real.”3
Also featured in the NGC collection are two images from the series Lightning Fields. Here, Sugimoto has captured electric shocks applied directly to pieces of film, creating unique representations of the phenomenon as it moves across the surface.4 With this project, Sugimoto aimed to engage with the practice of scientific experimentation, as well as with scientists and photographic figures of the 1800s – including the inventor of the negative/positive system in photography, William Henry Fox Talbot.
Through this process, Sugimoto questions the validity of what can and cannot be directly seen by the eye, as well as photography’s role in making what normally is invisible, visible. When describing Lightning Fields, Sugimoto writes, “The idea of observing the effects of electrical discharges on photographic dry plates reflects my desire to re-create the major discoveries of these scientific pioneers in the darkroom and verify them with my own eyes.”5
Hiroshi Sugimoto was born in 1948 in Tokyo, Japan, where he studied politics and sociology at university before moving to Los Angeles in 1970 to study Fine Art. After graduation, Sugimoto moved to New York City and began his career as a professional photographer. In addition to photography, Sugimoto is an architect and producer of performing arts.6
About the Author:
Emily Sylman is pursuing a Master’s degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections Management (F+PPCM) at X University (formerly Ryerson University) in Toronto.