Published  05/10/2023

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Playing With Fire

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Playing With Fire

Sugimoto, known for his meticulously crafted photographs, here extends his experimentation with the medium as a result of returning to his New York studio after a three-year absence due to the Covid pandemic

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Playing With Fire, installation view, Gallery Koyanagi, Ginza, Tokyo. ©︎ Sugimoto Studio.

Gallery Koyanagi, Ginza, Tokyo
5 September – 27 October 2023


The exhibition shows 14 of the latest works from the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Brush Impression series, which is in the form of calligraphy. For these, instead of using a camera, the artist used brushes and photographic chemicals to apply kanji, ideographs of Chinese characters, directly on to light-sensitive paper. Known for meticulously conceived and executed photography, Sugimoto’s work, in particular his Seascapes series, requires a specific type of photographic paper that can capture the subtle tonality of light and darkness. However, Sugimoto, who divides his time between New York and Japan, wasn’t able to travel, shoot and print photographs in the darkroom during the Covid pandemic, and the photographic papers kept in his workshop in New York deteriorated. Over the three years, the paper’s colour became what Sugimoto describes as “albumenised”. Instead of disposing of what amounted to about 1,000 sheets, Sugimoto went on to explore a new form of photography. He exposed the deteriorated photographic paper to sunlight for between a few seconds and 20 minutes, then brought the paper into his dark room, dipped a broom-sized brush into photographic fixer and wrote a character with the brush stroke on to the paper’s surface. Once exposed to strong light the surface of the paper takes on a pinkish tone. When photographic fixer is brushed on to it, and it is then dipped into developer, this pink colour is fixed, while the areas that were not coated with fixer instantly turn black when dipped into the developer. It is just like the principle of photography, but without using a camera.

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Playing With Fire, installation view, Gallery Koyanagi, Ginza, Tokyo. ©︎ Sugimoto Studio.

In this show, Sugimoto explores fire, continuously writing the hierographic character Hi, which depicts a burning flame. Fire is a subject that has fascinated him during a career that has spanned nearly half a century, along with the origin of human consciousness, how mankind started the act of creating painting that differentiates human from other living animals. “Creating a character is fundamentally what makes a human human. Not just speaking a language, but creating a character is about the consciousness to document the language and record, a gesture that is special to humankind,” Sugimoto says. Likewise, he says, making a fire to cook on and to create heat, and controlling it, are gestures created by humans. Working in his dark room, with no hint of what he is writing (photographic fixer has no colour) on the photographic paper, he uses his physical senses rather than sight. “I visualised various form of flame, from a blazing fire to one burning out,” he says. The works are a testimony to how Sugimoto has been reinventing photographic expression.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, a large-scale retrospective of the artist’s work will be at the Hayward Gallery, London from 11 October 2023 to 7 January 2024.

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