Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1997 – Gelatin silver print – 23 x 18 ½ inches (58.4 x 47 cm), edition of 25; 58 ¾ x 47 inches (149.2 x 119.4 cm), edition of 5 – Negative 904 – © Hiroshi Sugimoto
Getty Museum, 2014 – Gelatin silver print – 23 x 18 ½ inches (58.4 x 47 cm), edition of 25 – Negative 991 – © Hiroshi Sugimoto
The acclaimed Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto begins his introduction to his new book by recounting his experience of 9/11, from then onto a tale of a Japanese courtier, then onto how he began photographing the modernist architecture landmarks in 1997, then onto an Alexei Tolstoy story called How Much Land Does a Man Need? After so much jumping around the introduction makes little sense, and certainly the book does not answer Tolstoy’s question. Which I suppose is fine, since most of you are here for the pictures.
The ninety black and white images of the new book are photos of architectural landmarks that don’t seem to have a common thread other than the fact that Sugimoto likes them. I don’t have a problem with that, actually, as artists are also inevitably curators of their own aesthetic worlds. The press release states that the book is the distillation of “the language of architectural modernism,” and here one can argue about things say like why would one classify the Frank Gehry Fondation Louis Vuitton pile as one (or, for that matter, the leaning tower of Pisa). But again, perhaps we just want to look at the photos.
Sugimoto, known for his super crisp photography, takes the diametrically opposite approach here by manually setting his focal point to double-infinity (I’ll skip the mechanics here, you’ll need to go back to the intro for that) in order to achieve a maximum blur and thus concentrate on the buildings’ outlines. According to Sugimoto, what he was was not trying to cause the viewer premature wrinkles through excessive squinting, but to highlight the outlines of the buildings, which would get us to their essence. Since the project of the modernist architecture, starting with Adolf Looks (strangely not mentioned in the book), was to do away with ornament, this seems like a valid approach. Indeed, there is strength in the modernist architecture lines, which achieve strong contours.
The results are decidedly mixed. Some, where the buildings are modernist indeed, totally work, especially if you have seen the buildings before, in person or in pictures without the blur. The images reduce the buildings to their elemental lines; here especially the Luis Barragan’s house in Mexico stands out, looking deliciously rectilinear. Others work perhaps unintentionally, making them look like something they are not – for example, the photo of the top of the Chrysler Building makes it resemble a birthday cake. Still, other pictures look like… well, they look like the photographer forgot to focus his camera. But that’s the nature of the experiment in which the artist sets the parameters first and is forced to execute them with various degrees of success. Which also seems valid.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Architecture, Damiani ($60). Hardcover, 160 pages, 90 b&w photos. Out now.
All images courtesy of the publisher.