What Am I Looking At?
Hiroshi Sugimoto at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art
Review by Andrea Noble
Beyond working in the same medium, albeit at different times and places, what is the connective thread that binds the Japanese photographic artist Hiroshi Sugimoto (b. 1948) and the British pioneer of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877)? The answer lies in the two collections of images, Lightning Fields and Photogenic Drawings, on display for the first time in Europe at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art. Any dialogue with the inventor of the positive-negative system, that early nineteenth-century precursor of photographic processes and images as we knew them until the advent of digital photography, is inevitably an engagement with the status of photographic representation itself. In this way, the images presented in Edinburgh form part of Sugimoto’s longer trajectory which, in part, has been characterised by a meditation on the medium.
Display boards on the mezzanine that links the four rooms that comprise the show remind the visitor that Sugimoto earned his reputation in the 1970s for his series Dioramas, taken at New York’s Natural History Museum where, he claims, he made a curious discovery. The stuffed animals positioned against painted backdrops looked ‘utterly fake’, and yet, by closing one eye and thereby banishing all perspective, they suddenly looked very real; in this way, Sugimoto "learned to see the world as the camera does". The images in the series Lightning Fields and Photogenic Drawings are similarly about seeing the world as the camera does – or, perhaps more correctly, photographically – and are simultaneously about recreating, and going beyond, the world as it would have been seen through the camera of Fox Talbot and his contemporaries. In these visual worlds, that which is seen through the photographic process often exceeds that which is visible to the human eye.
In Lightning Fields, strange, silver forms flash as if momentarily, but of course permanently, onto stark black backgrounds, conjuring up the idea, in this viewer’s mind at least, of everything from: leaf veins; ice particles; lush, almost furry, organic forms; river courses as seen from the perspective of a satellite; or distant planetary systems; and electrical storms, again, viewed from a distance. And of course, as the title indicates, electrical storms are closest to the mark. The explanatory text accompanying the images signals that, following an experiment conducted originally by Fox Talbot, they are the result of releasing 400,000 volts onto film placed on a metal plate in a dark room. However, where Fox Talbot, working with the scientist Michael Faraday, used something called a Wimshurst Electrostatic Generator, after experimenting with the same machine, Sugimoto graduated on to a Van de Graaf Generator. This allowed him to crank the generator up to a much higher voltage, releasing the charge when the hairs on the "back of his arms stood up on end", to produce striking abstract images of lighting invisible to the naked eye (To the uninitiated, such as the present reviewer, images of both machines and descriptions of their working methods can be consulted on a well known online encyclopaedia that is not normally publicly acknowledged as a tool of knowledge, but proves remarkably handy, in this instance, for anyone not trained in electrical engineering).
If the images of Lightning Fields are indebted to Fox Talbot’s working methods, the fascinating Photogenic Drawings are enlargements of copies of his original negatives, which Sugimoto spent several years locating and acquiring in order to make the series. Combining a rich variety of colours and textures, and representing objects both more and less recognisable, the two rooms of Photogenic Drawings have been organised, it would seem, to puzzle the viewer, and to pique her curiosity about what it is that she is looking at. In long, rectangular rooms, the images are displayed on the three walls facing visitors as they walk through the door. Captions and dates are to be found, not beside or below each photograph; rather they are located on the back wall. In this way, visitors encounter the identifiable, stencil-like Leaves of Peony from June 1839, 2009, and the ghost-like figure in sepia-brown Believed to be Amelia Petit, Talbot family governess circa 1840-1841, 2008, alongside the mysterious, and frankly unidentifiable form that is Shark Egg Case, circa 1840-1845, 2009, all without the aid of adjacent explanatory captions (And again, this reviewer subsequently found herself consulting that on-line repository of information, having never given proper thought to shark reproductive techniques, where, it turns out, these fish have three modes of bearing their young). The effect of the nonadjacent caption is to send visitors backwards and forwards in a process of seeking to identify just what it is that they have before their eyes. For all that these exquisitely coloured and textured images are drawing-like, as photographs they invariably prompt questions about what it was precisely that, well over one-hundred years ago, was positioned in front of Talbot’s lens, and in the presence of which we now find ourselves, enlarged and mediated by Sugimoto.
What am I looking at? This is one of the key questions prompted by a visit to this photographic exhibition. The answer can be supplied both by recourse to the imagination, and to more factual, if potentially unreliable, sources of information. But the question does not simply apply to the images as framed entities on the walls. Instead, Lightning Fields and Photogenic Drawings are reflections on the very process of photographic reproduction itself, on the medium’s dual status, at its origins, as it is now, both as art and science, and on the photographer’s role in the process, as originator, inventor or, creator of the image.