You’re unlikely to find a more beautiful book than Hiroshi Sugimoto, designed by Takaaki Matsumodo. The book is cloth-bound in shadow-blue, with a slight sheen, only a shallow stamp of the artist’s name on the front cover and spine. It seems dangerously heavy to set on the glass panes of my desk; this copy has some wear and tear from traveling through the interlibrary loan system, which seems immoral somehow–it has an aura that says “Place me under glass.” Of course, in order to enjoy the book, we must bring it into the light and hands that will flip its pages and eventually destroy it. As the frontispiece–a plate from the Seascapes series, blooming with rust and decay–reminds us, ruin is the destination of all images, no matter how pristine or well-preserved.
The photographer is well known for playing with time in his images: life-like figures frozen mid-movement in wax museums and dioramas, sea-sky horizons that resemble themselves from a hundred, or a million, or a billion years ago, lightning fields captured in the darkness of his studio, a column of feathered white that documents a candle’s entire burn in a single exposure, and–my favorite–his series Theaters. To create each image, he opened the shutter at the beginning of a feature film and closed it at the end, condensing the entire film into a cold, glowing white screen. Then there are his blurred portraits of iconic architecture, including his 1997 shot of the World Trade Center, the two towers both so opaque and ghostly, imposing and flat, that it is almost disorienting to look at the photo for more than a few seconds, like an optical illusion that constantly flips its positive and negative space.
I’ve wanted to write about Sugimoto’s work for years, and I am, finally, as I work on a paper for the symposium “Lines and Nodes: Media, Aesthetics and Infrastructure,” to be held at NYU/Anthology Film Archives this fall. Waking up in the morning and poring over Sugimoto’s work for the past couple of weeks has been a joy, but the real adventure has been the wild goose chase for the archival documents I’d like to employ: electric bills for the Ohio Theater, located in my hometown of Columbus, which Sugimoto shot in 1980. In my obsession with the materiality of images, I find myself wanting to know the source of the light captured in Theaters, the actual energy source, whether coal, or hydroelectric or nuclear, how it traveled, by buried cables or wire spanning poles lining highways, across what corn and soy-covered distances dotted by power stations. I want to trace back the origin of the light we see in the images, that haunting light, made possible, yes, by Sugimoto’s technical, even spiritual, genius, but also by some material extracted from the earth, its movements, its most unpredictable elements. I’ve emailed and called the Ohio Theater, the Ohio Historical Society’s Library and Archives, American Electric Power’s media relations department, to no avail (so far). A group of historical theater enthusiasts are next on my call sheet.
In any case, my time with Sugimoto’s work has confirmed a truth I arrived at as a child, but never shared with anyone living in the disenchanted adult world impinging upon me: there are different kinds of darkness. And I don’t mean that there are shades of darkness like dusk, then midnight, foggy darkness, moonlit darkness and pitch black darkness; I mean there are darknesses that are palpable, kinetic, not simply empty of light but full of its opposite. Kerry Brougher’s critical essay in Hiroshi Sugimoto quotes Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows,” the title Sugimoto borrows for his series of burning candles. Tanizaki writes of sitting in a large room in a teahouse, within a “darkness, broken only by a few candles,” a darkness “of a richness quite different from the darkness of a small room,” a darkness that “seemed to fall from the ceiling, lofty, intense, monolithic, the fragile light of the candle unable to pierce its thickness, turned back as from a black wall,” a darkness “in which ghosts and monsters were active.” Darkness has always seemed, to me, to be a bubbling thing, an active fullness such as Tanizaki describes, like Sugimoto’s “Tyrrhenian Sea” (1994).
As a child, I was afraid of the dark, but loved going to the movies. As I said, there are different kinds of darkness. In the course of writing this paper, I imagine I’ll learn more about its powerful varieties, darknesses that comfort and others that threaten. The darkness of cinemas buoys us up on our journey through vicarious delight or despair, from one moment to the next. Perhaps Theaters is a reminder of the flatness of light, a reminder that while light glazes the already gilt ceilings of baroque cinema houses, darkness congeals in every crevice, settles into pools on the floor, waits to recover the entire space when the light on the screen retreats. If Sugimoto’s photographs do anything beyond their oft-discussed challenges to temporal order, they re-acquaint the viewer with the darkness that is the natural state of the world, before electrical distribution, before backlit museum displays, before cameras that seek to hoard the light on a metal plate or pane of glass.
The images printed on the stark white pages of Hiroshi Sugimoto ultimately reinforce the beauty and eternality of darkness, and the fugitive weakness of light working against it. This is the most beautiful quality of this most beautiful book; it is sobering without being morbid, presenting a calm face before the flow of time that omnivorously erodes all forms, and an equally calm face, like those of the one thousand and one bodhisattvas in Sea of Buddha, before the fact that time is an illusion, along with, quite possibly, everything else that light allows us to see.