Review by Wayne Swanson •
Here’s an idea that would seem destined for the “What were you thinking?” trash bin: Take the trusty 8 x 10-inch view camera that has earned you international acclaim for the richness and depth of your imagery, and set it so everything is out of focus — way out of focus.
But Hiroshi Sugimoto is a master of the unlikely. Having created a pair of mesmerizing series about empty seascapes and theaters, why not celebrate architecture in a counterintuitive way?
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Architecture began when the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, invited him to participate in a survey exhibition of 100 years of modernist architecture. Recognizing that many of these buildings were now becoming “old and decrepit,” Sugimoto wanted to find a way to capture their essence, rather than document the ravages of time. So he took his large-format camera and set the focal point to twice infinity. “When I took photographs using this technique,” he says, “the subjects blurred beautifully — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they melted away. A finished building, I like to say, is the tomb of architecture. Applying a focal length of twice infinity to these tombs reveals the soul of the building, whether dead or dying.”
At its best, the book proves that sharp focus is irrelevant when it comes to creating evocative architectural imagery. Blur can enhance the appreciation of the most familiar buildings. The iconic rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York is compelling when reduced to simple bands of darkness and light. A 1997 image of the World Trade Center renders the buildings as simply dark vertical bars, yet they are immediately recognizable and seem ominously prescient, considering what was to come. The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, and Chrysler Building radiate the power of their iconic designs, even though the detail in the ornament is stripped away.
The book gives architecture geeks a chance to test their knowledge of modern architecture. Can you identify the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles from just that hump on a mass of black? Extra credit if you can identify the Rudolf Schindler home and studio just by the narrow bands of light from the clerestory and vertical interior windows.
Often Sugimoto’s technique works, but sometimes it results in a bit of a murky mess. The curtain wall of the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin comes across as elegant as it recedes into darkness, for example, but the crisp geometric lines that define the Rietvelt-Schroeder House in the Netherlands get lost in a dank fog. Some images create graceful compositions whether you can identify the subject or not, and others just seem fuzzy.
Overall, Sugimoto’s technique of using light and shadow to strip down modernist buildings to their essence succeeds more often than it fails. It creates a contemplative atmosphere in which to appreciate the power of pure architectural form.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Architecture, Hiroshi Sugimoto
Photographer: Hiroshi Sugimoto, born Tokyo, Japan, resides New York, NY, USA
Publisher: Damiani/MW Editions, Bologna, Italy, copyright 2019
Essay: Hiroshi Sugimoto
Hardcover book with book jacket, sewn binding, black-and-white lithography, 160 pages with 90 images, 10 x 11 inches, printed in Italy
Photobook designer: Takaaki Matsumoto