Washington, DC

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cabot Street Cinema, Massachusetts, 1978, black-and-white photograph, 16 5/8 x 21 1/4".

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cabot Street Cinema, Massachusetts, 1978, black-and-white photograph, 16 5/8 x 21 1/4".

Hiroshi Sugimoto

OF ALL OF HIROSHI SUGIMOTO’S photographs, some 120 of which were recently on view in a retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, I like best the blankest and emptiest of them, the seascapes and the movie screens. Paradoxically, these are also the least photographic of his photographs, at least as I understand the photographic: as a field of indexically registered, automatic detail, which tends toward a chaos principle of frozen momentariness and punctal oddity. There is none of that anywhere in Sugimoto’s work, but least of all in these flat seas and glowing white screens, which do their utmost either to empty the photographic field of all detail or to consign it to their dark peripheries. Strange that I should like these, for I have always had great affection for the chaotic photograph and its uncanny detail.

Writing about film, André Bazin once claimed that the photograph represented the modern epitome of what he called the “mummy complex” of Western mimesis: the desire to preserve life unchanged, forever. That mummy complex is perfectly rendered in Sugimoto’s doubly embalmed photographs of historical waxworks from Madame Tussauds and of taxidermic animals from the American Museum of Natural History’s wonderful old parade of dioramas. The best of these are a waxily sweating Henry VIII and a pair of manatees behind glass. What is compelling about such images is precisely their detail. But their detail is not punctal, and never uncanny, for what these photographs demonstrate with such technical virtuosity is the deadness of their subjects, the morbidity of the impulse to preserve, and the necrophilia of the mummy complex.

These photographs do not freeze the living moment or capture life; like mummies, they are monuments to the already dead and to the eternity of death. Manatee, 1999, is a beautiful photograph, but the most living thing in it is the light that streams through glass and embalmed water onto silver emulsion. The manatees it depicts may be “real,” as Sugimoto asserts, but the reality they materialize is not that of life, for they appear never to have been alive in the first place. Theirs is not the “that-has-been” of past livingness or the future anteriority of death about which Barthes wrote so poignantly. Theirs is rather the evermore of the always-was, the eternal presentness of the tomb that is shared by painted portraits and stone sculptures alike. The materiality of Sugimoto’s photographs is very evidently photographic, yet in the matter of time, they have no specificity of medium.

Were it not for the ponderousness of some of Sugimoto’s quoted remarks and the persistent ambitiousness of his large-scale concepts, I would take the elegant yet unpleasant stillness of his work as a canny meditation on the mortuary flip side of the photograph’s famous freezing of time. But the Zen conceit of his “Sea of Buddha” series, 1995, the high-modernist yen of his out-of-focus architectural photographs, and the neo–Man Rayism of his mathematical objects suggest otherwise: that this is a photographer who wants monumentality and genius for his photography. His mastery of the auratic fine print, his choice of the silver standard of pristine black-and-white rendered in the chilliest possible tonality, and his constant setting and surpassing of new standards in the photographic impossible together suggest an “anxiety of influence” game, played out in the realm of the photograph.

This is not to my usual taste. So why do I like the sublime seas and the snow-white screens so much? Well, precisely because they are so very perverse in their feats of photographic unfeasibility. Which is to say, not because they are so very beautiful, which they are, and not because they were so very hard to do, which they were, but because their emptying photography of the photographic is so very contrary in the way it ends up showing what makes a photograph a photograph. The seascapes evoke the sublime of Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, 1809, minus the monk and multiplied tenfold. Yet, particularly when exhibited as a glowing series in a long, dark space, their reduction of detail to a minimum, their relegation of that detail to the flat gray field of the sea, and their equation of the gray scale of photography with the horizon-line combine to display the constituent tones of photography and to show how its particulars are made of those tones.

As for the movie screens, they speak in a strange and spectral way of the relay between the still and the moving picture, each canceling the other out, as the long-exposure photograph etches the detail of dark, ornate theaters with eerie precision but transforms the entirety of the projected film into a ghostly, whited-out, rectangular shine—light made manifold. Thus they invert the filmic event, and the filmic dependence on the sequenced frame of the still photograph, by giving us cinematic fields of nothingness with elaborate photographic frames and projected sequences converted into on-the-wall series. And they short-circuit the relay between the inscription-by-light and the inscription-of-detail that is the photograph, repeatedly framing the former by the latter rather than the other way around. All in a dark display space that evokes the theatrical space of projection. This is stuff I like, because it makes me think about photography. And that’s what I like most about Sugimoto’s photographs: not their aspirations to greatness, not their joining and rivaling of the mummified elite, but their sly meditations on themselves, against the grain of their own medium.

Carol Armstrong is a professor of art and archaeology and Doris Stevens Professor of the Study of Women and Gender at Princeton University.

Co-organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, “Hiroshi Sugimoto” was cocurated by Kerry Brougher, chief curator of the Hirshhorn, and David Elliott, director of the Mori. The exhibition travels to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, September 17, 2006–January 21, 2007.