Hiroshi Sugimoto: Tradition

Apr 3, 2013 6:06PM

Artist Hiroshi Sugimoto sees with the eye of the sculptor, painter, architect, and philosopher. He uses his camera in a myriad of ways to create images that seem to convey his subjects' essence, whether architectural, sculptural, painterly, or of the natural world. He places extraordinary value on craftsmanship, printing his photographs with meticulous attention and a keen understanding of the nuances of the silver print and its potential for tonal richness. The following is an excerpt from an interview between the artist and Art21 from 2004.

ART21: The way you’re shooting, is it analogous to early photography?

SUGIMOTO: Yes, the earliest photography—probably nineteenth-century or early-twentieth-century style. People used to use very big-format cameras. And to me, this method still makes the best quality picture. We think we keep making inventions and tools as sophisticated. This system—it’s very hard to control, but it still makes the best picture. I am sticking to the traditional method.

ART21: Why is it hard to control?

SUGIMOTO: People used to use very simple things. Even this meter—there is no battery involved—a very simple method. People used to feel the light and how the light affected the surface of the object. The sky—light from the window—is constantly changing, every second, every minute. So, you really had to guess what was going to happen. You had to develop your own sense of the best balance of F-stop and shutter speed. I trained myself very well, spending thirty years doing this. So, the machine cannot measure some things, very intimate factors. What the early photographer gained from the study of nature, now people tend to rely on the computer or machines for. That’s not good enough. You need something more than that.

ART21: Talk about the way you print your photographs.

SUGIMOTO: I developed my own style of printing. I tested many different methods—Walker Evans's method, Ansel Adams’s method. They used different kinds of formulas and chemicals. I spent quite a lot of time studying chemicals and how to develop large-format negatives. I also developed a sense to adjust the negatives. What kind of gray tone creates these nice gray tones? And what level of grayness makes black tones—not losing the medium tones, but extremely deep black? And then, highlights should be interesting but never washed out. There’s no pure white; there are always some tones there. Even in the deepest shadow, there’s a tone that is possible to print on the silver surface, but not in a catalogue. So, this is about studying the silver reactions, and the colors of the metal as silver, and the surface of ink tones. The colors of the metal—silver metal, silver colors—that makes the tones of the images so rich.

I’m a great fan of this process and the colors of silver—how to make as fine tones as possible, as a silver-print maker. So, in that sense, I am a very craft-oriented person. But at the same time, I want to make something artistic and conceptual. In general, you know, the postmodern artist never paid attention to craftsmanship. That’s something like a nineteenth-century cliché. But to me, I’m going the other way around. I really respect my craftsmanship and my hands. So, even though I’ve lived in this postmodern time, I probably call myself a postmodern-experienced pre-postmodern modernist!

Hiroshi Sugimoto was first featured by Art21 in Season 3 of the series, "Art in the Twenty-First Century." Read the full interview and watch additional videos featuring the artist at Art21.org.