New York

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Sonnabend Gallery

In Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascapes, action, what there is of it, transpires in the subtle play between opposites. In each photograph, change and stasis, clarity and fog, detail and totality oscillate, creating a theater of “non-happening,” what the artist calls “time exposed.” With a few significant departures, this show represented a continuation of Sugimoto’s ongoing photographic series, begun in the mid ’70s, in which images are produced by leaving the camera shutter open for as long as three hours, allowing the passage of time to coalesce into the single moment a still photograph purports to represent. (Parallel series include photographs of drive-ins and period movie houses.) Delicately evocative and stubbornly literal, as much about the nature of photography as about the nature of nature, Sugimoto’s pictures resist verbal commentary because each statement about them seems to dissolve willfully into its antithesis. The pictures’ very resistance, however, increases the number of things to be said about them; in this sense, Sugimoto proves Susan Sontag’s dictum that photographs exist in order to be captioned.

In this show, Sugimoto’s images sorted themselves into several basic types. There were clear dayscapes, in which crisp, absolute horizons divided bright, blank skies from wave-flecked water dark as charcoal. There were foggy dayscapes, with sky and sea merged atmospherically, the horizons blurred or nonexistent. And there were nightscapes, in which sky, water, waves, and horizons registered as myriad degrees of black. Most radical—given the artist’s fastidiousness about print quality—was a new body of work shot, deliberately out of focus, on early mornings. Amidst dark water and sky, brilliant, blob-like sunpaths spilled from misty horizons, as if Monet or Turner had been given the sleek technology and cool distance of contemporary photographic vision. Also new for Sugimoto was a venture into video, Accelerated Buddha, 1997, in which a 1995 series of photographs—made in a Kyoto temple famous for its thousands of unique but nearly indistinguishable sculptures—faded into one another, frame by frame. Accompanied by a contemporary Japanese score, the stills seemed to pulsate, their almost imperceptible segues suggesting a kind of hallucinatory animation.

The impressionistic and expressive qualities of Sugimoto’s work were epitomized in the triptych, Tyrrhenian Sea, Mount Polo, 1993, in which each panel had been shot at a different time of day. In these pictures, there were no horizons, no waves, no clouds; no sharp contrasts in tone, no dust particles, no marks at all. There were simply three panels, one (comparatively) dark, one (utterly) medium, one (comparatively) light. They ought to have looked like darkroom mistakes, blank screens, but somehow they remained nature studies, as if the atmosphere of ocean and sky bled into them from other images in the room.

Such heightened awareness of adjacency linked the works in numerous ways. Time began to move both vertically, through the moments captured in each single frame, and horizontally, across the frames in the gallery—until the exhibition as a whole could be read as a movie in which all events registered simultaneously. This illusion of narrative structure was reinforced by the titles. Needless to say, one could ignore them, but most people, when confronted with a picture, want to know what it depicts. If photographs are fantasies of moment and shadow, captions are nuggets of “real” information, and if Sugimoto wished to deflect this aspect of his work, he could have called the images “Untitled Seascape.” He did not do this, and the naming words in the titles are allowed to resonate. Strait, gulf, bay, ocean, sea, cape, island. Atami, Japan, Hornslandet, Kullaberg, Atlantic, Baltic, Mount Polo, Sagami. These fragments begin to spin a yarn. Who is the protagonist of this story? The photographer, the hero as recorder, whose journey is displayed in these documents? The ocean itself, pictured like a diva, always mercurial, reliably beautiful? Or the viewer, who wanders among the separate images, stringing together a new whole each time he or she looks?

Frances Richard