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The work of Hiroshi Sugimoto cannot be comprehended without having been experienced in the flesh. Every artist believes this about their work, but in some circumstances it goes beyond optimal and moves into the imperative. So it is with Sugimoto’s photographs. (I have included this reproduction as an indicator but not the thing itself.)

The first time I saw one of Sugimoto’s photographs, I couldn’t move. I just stood there in front of that large scale seascape and basked. After 30 minutes of Sugimoto, there was nothing else in the museum that could penetrate my perceptions. He had filled up every receptive cell in my body with that one image, so I just had to sit down and be with a presence that was quiet and yet very powerful.

As described by David Ian Miller:

Sugimoto works on vast projects, each concerned with photographing the essence of time. He coined the phrase “Time Exposed” to describe his work. In his most famous project he photographs film theatres over the course of a movie, the screens turn brilliant white and illuminate the theatre. With his Seascape series he photographs the eternal sea, each frame bisected by the horizon. Sugimoto works on vast projects, each concerned with photographing the essence of time. He coined the phrase “Time Exposed” to describe his work. In his most famous project he photographs film theatres over the course of a movie, the screens turn brilliant white and illuminate the theatre. With his Seascape series he photographs the eternal sea, each frame bisected by the horizon.

His technique is also worthy of consideration, given the powerful results he is able to create:

These pictures have been taken with a technical view camera that shoots huge 8-by-10-inch negatives. It’s the kind of camera that consists of a long bellows, with a tea-saucer lens attached at one end and a ground-glass viewing screen at the other — in use, it looks like an accordion perched on a tripod — and that asks the photographer to stoop under a black cloth to look through it. It produces an ultra-precise, highly resolved image of whatever has been set before the lens, as though the photographer’s dedication to truth-telling won’t tolerate the missing of a single hair or speck of lint. It’s the kind of camera that produces a stunning “reality effect” — an overwhelming sense, even in black and white, that the world must be just the way the picture makes it look. Blake Gopnik

The spiritual dimension to his work is elemental to its presence. In an interview with Miller, Sugimoto had a few modest comments:

Miller: You wrote that artistic endeavors are “mere approximations, efforts to render visible unseen realms.” What did you mean by that?

Sugimoto:Well, this is one of the purposes of art itself. Science tries to understand nature in a logical sense, but there are many, many natural phenomena that cannot be explained by logic and science.

Historically, religion served this purpose. But now, we are getting into the 21st century and the power of religion is fading. People still need another way to understand the world besides logic — and we’re turning to art and spirituality to help us understand our environment and the world.

M: Is there a spiritual dimension to your photography?

S: If so, it is whatever the viewer feels looking at my work. I’m not purposely trying to make it spiritually strong. I’m just practicing my art. If people see it as a spiritual, I’m glad to accept it. But I’m not particularly promoting a spirituality of any kind.

Spirituality is a particular characteristic of the human being that no other animals have. I’m just trying to investigate where this comes from. In that process I sometimes stir up ancient memories and spirits, and maybe people who see my art respond to that.

Yesterday I received an email from a new poet friend, Martin Dickinson. He has written a remarkable ekphrasic poem, “Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Sea of Japan,” which was published in California Quarterly in 2007. He sent it with me along with some insightful words about Sugimoto’s work. I share both with you here.

I find it so amazing that he takes these time lapse photos of films–and all that we see is an incredible burst of white light coming at us. It looks unreal—but of course, on another level that IS reality, we just don’t usually look that way or see that way. Similarly with Sugimoto’s ocean series: superficially every single one of those photos is the same—shot at the same exact angle to the surface of the water and same exact distance above the surface. We see no earth at all, but just the surface of the water. As you look more deeply into these photos you begin to see remarkable and engrossing detail. Every single photo is unique and very unusual.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Sea of Japan

Hiroshi, wave after wave after wave
of endless blue, or rather, endless
black—or is it endless gray?

This is your language.
Dusty parts of the planet are worthless
except as places to plant your tripod—
pedestal for the all-seeing eye,
vantage toward this world
that pulses like a beating heart,
image of the thing becoming the thing,
then ebbing back to its image again,
heard like the slap of water against a pier,
tongued like the taste of salt,
felt like a slosh in the gut.

This instant that’s entered your lens,
ray relating from your retina to mine,
our thoughts electrons, chemicals really.
Is all the world ocean
or silver dots on gelatin, or both?

Truth is beams of light,
and you’ve seen it, alright.
Everything that is is motionless
everything that is is flow
wave after wave after wave, Hiroshi.

–Martin Dickinson

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