My first encounter with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work was in a 1980s compilation of Japanese modern art featuring his movie theatre and seascape works. Not surprisingly, it took me quite a while to wrap my own mind around his visions.
What is fascinating about Sugimoto’s photographs is that even when looking at work from 20 or 30 years ago, it still seems very much contemporary and recent. The reasons for this are surely manifold, but not least because of the use of black and white, the often archetypal subject matter and ultimately the work’s examination of timelessness itself (which would make an interesting nested double conundrum). This short documentary is an attempt to get a better impression about the man behind the pictures.
“I have hundreds of different ideas always in my mind, secretly.”
The film opens with Sugimoto experimenting with a Van de Graaff static electricity generator throwing sparks between the machine’s and the handheld spherical devices. The sparks are to be recorded on sheets of 8×10 film and later to be enlarged to prints resembling giant fireworks of lightnings, x-rays or even aerial reconnaissance images. He states that he had the idea to explore this when removing or inserting dark slides into the film holders during dry winters, which generated sparks, ruining the film in them.
His statement “I have hundreds of different ideas always in my mind, secretly” is the thread that appears to lead us from one project to another. Sugimoto is a quiet and persevering explorer of fascinating small details in the world which most of us would not care to look at for extended periods of time. While this may be valid for any noteworthy photographer, Sugimoto’s approach is unique in that it appears to completely isolate the subject matter, place it under the microscope (or rather the camera) and then records it in a quasi-scientific manner, often in a variety of subtle variations. While watching the film it occurs to me that a comparison to Edward Muybridge is not too far fetched.
The film continues to follow Sugimoto around during the preparations of his major retrospective. We join — presumably invited — visitors being shown around and explained selected works by the artist himself. Technically inclined viewers will certainly appreciate a glimpse at the working practices of a master, including his darkroom or the explanation of the “double-infinity” technique used in the Architecture series. Large format or film photographers in general will be assured that dust on film and prints will treat everyone equally, master or novice.
This documentary film by German art historian, curator and independent documentary filmmaker Maria Anna Tappeiner provides some valuable views on Sugimoto and his works. However, overall its approach appears rather detached, even restrained, showing little desire to dig its teeth into such rich subject material. Mostly for this reason I feel it ultimately falls short of giving the viewer the deeper thoughts behind the works, the influences, motivations and intentions. We see a lot of the well-known art works, results of brilliant craftsmanship, the Sugimoto studio with staff working on computers or work-in-progress images lined up against the walls – but even though these things catch the film viewers attention we are not enlightened about them, which is a shame. We are left with the impression of having scratched only the surface of a universe, about what makes the man tick. While this film is a must for all Sugimoto fans, to me at least it at no time seems to get near enough to reveal the title theme of visions in the mind.
Ufer! Art Documentary, Germany, 2007, DIGIBETA, Colour, 43 min, English with Japanese subtitles