Born in Japan and celebrated internationally, photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto has been captivating audiences with his black-and-white surveys of everything from ocean horizons to abandoned theaters. Now, at the age of 67, his passion shifts to architecture and work beyond the camera’s lens.
By Jason Edward Kaufman
Meticulously printed in large format, his photographs stimulate the mind as well as the eye, evoking cosmic memory, time, and the mystery of life. His most famous works, the Seascapes, show only water, air, and the horizon in serene vistas that the artist imagines are identical to those seen by our ancient ancestors. In another signature body of work, Theaters, Sugimoto leaves the shutter open for the length of an entire movie, turning the projection screens into shining white rectangles that capture time in a single frame. The eye-fooling photographs of animals and cave men in his natural history Dioramas, and his Portraits of figures in wax museums, erase the line between life and representation. And a recent series, Lightning Fields, registers arcs of electricity produced by a generator in the studio, exemplifying humankind’s Promethean attempts to harness nature’s forces.
Though Sugimoto is a photographer of ideas, he also is a consummate craftsman. To achieve the technical precision he demands, he uses a large-format camera and develops his own film in the manner of a 19th-century photographer. His expertise allows him to create effects that transport the viewer to another time.
He photographed venerable Japanese pine trees to look like medieval ink paintings, and a thousand gilded Buddhist sculptures inside a Kyoto temple to appear as they did when they were created centuries ago. For a series of photographs of Modernist architecture, commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, he deliberately produced a blur that gives the iconic structures the appearance of ghosts. But his approach appeals to contemporary sensibilities — U2 chose one of his Seascapes for the cover of the band’s album No Line on the Horizon.
Born in 1948, after college he moved to Los Angeles and experimented with hallucinogenic drugs while attending Art Center College of Design. In 1974 he sought his fortunes in New York, and was quickly discovered by the Museum of Modern Art, launching his career. Since then he has divided his time between Tokyo and New York, traveling for projects and exhibitions across North America, Europe, South America and Asia. Having won many photography awards, and the Japanese Praemium Imperiale (2009), Japan’s national Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon (2010), and having been named an Officier in the French Order of Arts and Letters (2013).
Today Sugimoto is concentrating his energies on a hilltop complex he designed to house the Odawara Art Foundation, a nonprofit that he established in 2009. Overlooking Sagami Bay 60 miles west of Tokyo, the facility, which will open in 2017, includes a 15th-century wooden entrance gate, a minimalist gallery, a tea pavilion, gardens, and stages for presentation of traditional Japanese Noh and Bunraku puppet theater, genres that the artist is fond of directing. Sugimoto invited us into his 11th-floor studio in Manhattan’s Chelsea district to discuss his career, the role America has played in his perception, and his current interests in theater and architecture.
JEK: Your art keeps rising in value and is increasingly sought after. However, you’re transitioning more to architecture. How has that been?
HS: I am new and young as an architect, so I have to do whatever I need to do. People asked me to design a specialty fashion interior for Isetan department store in Tokyo. So I did it, and it opened this year. I am trying to be ambitious and quite unique and unusual, not like a commercial designer.
My architecture office name is New Material Research Laboratory, and I want to keep trying to use new materials, which sometimes means ancient antique stones that I may find, and sometimes means using old materials which have already been forgotten. We use them for traditional Japanese structures. It’s too costly now sometimes, but I still want to use it or revive it. And with some new materials I can apply a new method, like patinating the steel. So even for this kind of commercial commission I can try to incorporate my own unique experience. I can gather skills and information how to do it, so that information I gain I can apply to construction of the building I am creating for my own foundation. I’m just using other people’s money to test my curiosity. [Lacking a permit, he has hired young architects to collaborate on his designs.]
What are some of your architectural projects?
I have designed some small private museums in Japan, including one near Mount Fuji, and some stores and galleries. I designed Christie’s Japan office, and a restaurant in Aoyama that has walls that can open to the outdoors where I placed one of sculptural pieces in a rock garden. At Naoshima Contemporary Art Center I designed a Shinto shrine, and I created a glass teahouse for Le Stanze del Vetro, the glass museum on San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.
The glass teahouse was a collaboration with the mosaic company Bisazza. What was that project like? How do you choose which brands to work with?
They usually come to me. Bisazza reached out to do something special for their Venice foundation, so when I was asked to do something for the Stanze del Vetro I counted on them to provide Bisazza tiles to make my Venice glass teahouse. They had to benefit from this, so I gave them some Sugimoto art photographs in exchange for the tile used in the piece. We designed it, but they provided the tile, and they installed it.
Have you completed any architectural work in the United States?
We have a couple of private residential interior projects going on, one in California and one in New York City. I cannot announce it now.
Tell me about the Odawara Art Foundation that you established in 2009. Why did you create this foundation and what is its mission?
The foundation is to promote traditional Japanese art, and also I am really into theater production. It will open in 2017. I am financing it. I wanted to commission myself to make some ambitious architecture. The foundation is a public entity, so I have no intention of profiting myself. I just want to help people to do something interesting.
Some architectural structures on the site are very aggressively designed. It will have Noh theaters, a 100-meter gallery space, some tearooms — many facilities. In this case it is not only about architecture, but also it is a kind of earthwork in a way. It faces the ocean from 100 meters above sea level, with a 180-degree vista of the sea. Even if I have artificial knees, I can sit here and still shoot seascapes!
Are you going to present all Japanese traditional performing arts?
Mainly Noh theater and Bunraku puppet theater. No Kabuki because Kabuki is commercially so popular they don’t need support.
The main building of your foundation is minimalist, with rectilinear planes and an overhanging eave that reminds me a little of the work of Tadao Ando.
He’s my friend. Structure-wise this is quite ambitious. It is all one sheet of glass on one side and there is a continuous view of the sea. When you walk in you see a 100-meter-long space, very narrow — only 4 meters across and 4 meters high — and the end faces the Pacific Ocean. I planned that it can be hung with artworks, but right now it is just finished and the space itself is so nice and pure that I leave it empty to show the space.
On the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the sun comes up from the ocean, and that one day only the sunlight hits directly through the space. Then underneath the building there is a Richard Serra like structure, a steel tunnel 70 meters long that cuts through the foundation. The sun shines through it only on the winter solstice. This is the shortest day of the year, one day of the year. You have to wake up at 6:58 am and the sun comes up directly through there, and stays maybe one minute. That’s the only time, once a year. So above is the summer axis, and the winter axis is underground.
Your building is like a cosmic earthwork, like a Michael Heizer or Stonehenge. Will it change over centuries?
In a thousand years there might be a slight shift in the axis of the globe, but not within our time. The outdoor Noh theater [the stage appears to float above the ocean below] is also facing the equinox for spring and autumn. The Noh play starts early in the morning, like 5 am, and by the time the ghost character is leaving this world the sun will shine behind. It is a conceptual earthwork, but the architecture itself is quite ambitious in terms of structural engineering. Four times a year will be a very special day. I don’t want to invite many people — maybe 30 or 40 people, high-end members.
Will your foundation seek contributions from other patrons?
Right now I am trying to finance it mostly by myself, with some support form Japan Society in New York. They need a kind of base facility in Japan, so there is mutual interest and we can exchange programs. A program being made at the foundation can be sent to Japan Society’s theater in New York.
For the opening of the facility in Fall 2017 I am producing a newly written Noh play about the 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyū. There is a historical site associated with him only a few hundred meters away, where Rikyū built his teahouse. The site is preserved, but the rustic pavilion is no longer there. That play will come to Japan Society in New York.
With all your work as a photographer, a sculptor, and an architect, your array of clients and creative projects, and your dividing your time between New York and Tokyo, it must be impossible to describe a typical day. But what is your schedule like over a month?
I’m spending six months in Japan, then somewhere else. The time I am spending in New York is getting less and less — maybe four months a year. Construction of the foundation needs me all the time, and I have to be on site to make major decisions. The structure is almost finished, but I am moving into landscaping this huge property. Landscaping is art, so I cannot let someone else do it. I have to be there. Will we make a space here, and if we do, where should a stone go? It’s very difficult. This is not only for two years, but this is my lifetime project, until I die.
Generally we stay one month here in New York. Jetlag isn’t over for two weeks, but I love jetlag. It keeps my mind clear at midnight. Then I have many shows planned outside Japan and outside the United States. Recently there have been more shows in Europe, especially the last few years so many shows in France. So
I take two or three spins around the globe a year. I usually buy round-the-world tickets and try to make it only one direction, not going back and forth. It’s easier.
Do you actually buy round-the-world airline tickets?
Yes, that’s the most convenient, and it’s not that expensive. Business-class costs $7,000 or $8,000 dollars. You have three stops and the ticket is open for more than one year, and you can change the stops. It’s very, very convenient. There is always a need or request to visit – meetings, exhibitions, lectures, big collectors asking me to come. For example, I had a sculpture in the Venice Biennial, and Galleria Continua in Tuscany invites artists once or twice a year. I was commissioned last year. I installed an 18th century chapel with sculptures of cone-shaped mathematical forms, one on the floor and one suspended from the ceiling, leaving a tiny space between their points. The forms point to zero, but the point of zero cannot exist physically, so there is a small gap so people can sit and look where the point of zero is — a physically existing point zero, but invisible. I made it visible. [The piece is titled Confession of Zero, 2014.]
What do you do when you are not making art or architecture?
I am really into cooking. I have this series of events in Tokyo. I invite guests every month and show my collections and cook Japanese food. My next publication in Japan will be a cookbook. The dining room in my apartment has a small capacity, four seats. It’s Japanese style. I invite artists, musicians, actors and actresses, Buddhist monks, the architect Kazuyo Seijima of Sanaa, Yoshiko Mori, and Pierre-Alexis Dumas of Hermès. I show them objects from my collection: 8th-century sutras, Rembrandt’s etching Annunciation to the Shepherds, Buddhist reliquaries, etc. Each time I choose the artwork specifically8 for the dinner guests. We discuss art, life, philosophy.
Are you very self-critical? How do you define creative success in a work?
Of course I am self-critical. I have a technical standard that has to be met. Creative success? I don’t know whether it’s financial success or aesthetic success. The shows that I like sometimes don’t sell, and a show I don’t care about as much may sell well. For a sculpture I really spend time to create, but people tend to buy my photography. And the architecture — I have been working seriously, but never make money. So what does success mean to me? I just want to keep my practice as I want to practice. But I have to do a series of shows, as well. I am just following my curiosity and just keep myself happy. That’s fine. I don’t need a big chunk of money which I cannot control. I have this foundation that I can donate to when I make money. Basically I want to die balance zero — including inheritance tax!
Do you have children?
I have two grown children. My son lives in New York and is in film and video production, the daughter is helping my son. They opened a restaurant in Williamsburg this year called Salt and Charcoal, on Bedford and Grand Street. They asked to borrow one of my “Theater” pieces to hang over the bar counter. People ask him whether this is a copy or forgery. It’s an unsigned print.
Are the Theater pieces the most valuable in terms of the market?
Probably the Seascapes are the most popular. A few large ones have sold for over a million dollars at auction.
You have traveled the world to photograph nearly all the seas. That must have been an amazing journey. Was is anything like a vacation, or does the work aspect take over?
Well, it’s vacation-like, but it’s very severe in most cases, especially “Seascapes.” I want to go to as remote places as possible, far away from civilization. I went to Egypt and drove myself to the Red Sea coast. It was very dangerous. Most of the beaches were mined because the Gulf War tensions remained at that time. The only spot you could access was a small beach, and if you pass one mine, boom! There were no people around. It was extremely clear water and sky.
Your works often take the viewer out of time, and play with ideas of representation, as in the Portraits of wax figures and the Dioramas. What are you trying to convey?
You can say anything you want about Sugimoto’s art and nothing is wrong. That’s what I usually say. Timelessness? That’s fine. Timelessness is being presented. Or a life-and-death situation. Wax figures are lifeless, but lifeless means related to death. But if it still looks like life, then the question is, “What does life look like?” So it’s all interrelated, all the themes.
Why do you never photograph living people other than yourself?
Because I am strictly limited to dead people. People ask me to photograph their live portrait, and I usually say, “Please die first, be waxed, and come back!” I did several live portraits. I photographed my former dealer Ileana Sonnabend. She had a very waxy look. She was waxy enough!
Your ideas seem related to an Eastern sensibility, particularly the meditative quality of Zen. Are you a Buddhist?
No. I am more like a Buddhist researcher or scholar. Well, not a scholar since I have no degrees. But I know Buddhist history and concepts, though I don’t practice as a religion. But I am still spiritual. I don’t want to belong to any kind of sect. Art and religion share the same origin, I think. So you have to be spirited by some reason to be an artist. Contemporary artists de-spiritualize too much, I think. Having a spirit is kind of a negative side of being an artist now. You have to totally de-spiritualize and become focused on the material. I would rather be dematerialized myself as a body.
What do you collect?
I’m drawn to important scientific devices. I bought Isaac Newton’s first English publication about light. I bought recently the architecture book of Piranesi, Le Antichita Romane [the Study of Roman Ruins], four big volumes. I own a copy of Kaitai Shinsho, the first Western medical text translated into Japanese, dating back to the Edo period, and one of Michael Faraday’s original notebooks recording his experiments on combustion.
You own a signed photo of Roosevelt’s cabinet made a week after Pearl Harbor. What significance does that curio hold for you?
I have a collection with many memorabilia from WWII. That’s evidence of history, so many interesting things.
You were born in Tokyo in 1948, just after World War II. What was it like in the aftermath of the war?
I was born during the American occupation time. By the time my memory starts at around 4 or 5 years old, Japan had started rebuilding. There was no severe damage remaining at that time. My mother’s sister married an American who worked for AT&T Communications, so they had a beautiful Western house with gardens in the suburbs of Tokyo and I enjoyed the high living standard that Americans had at that time.
So you didn’t feel post-war deprivation? Was there a lot of resentment of America?
No. My mother’s business was running very well. It was quite an active moment in Japanese society and the economy. I enjoyed watching it. There was not resentment of America in my time. I remember the first time I drank Coca Cola. It was kind of medicine-like, like cough medicine!
Was your childhood home a traditional household, like in a Mizoguchi movie?
Yeah, sort of a Mizoguchi-like house, traditional with a tatami room. We took off our shoes. There was a housekeeper. My father was a pharmaceutical merchant – Japanese pharmaceuticals and he imported some American products as well. He distributed everywhere in Japan. My mother was a serious business woman. It was my mother’s family business that my father joined, so my mother’s power was ten times higher than my father’s. It was an arranged marriage. She lived in Kobe and the business was in Tokyo. My mother’s aunts were running the business, and an aunt was one of the business managers who worked with him. She thought this guy was working very well, so she decided to make him her nephew to run the business. She called my mother to make a marriage arrangement.
Were you a photographer even as a child?
At 12 years old I was given a serious camera from my father. He had bought a high-end camera, a Mamiya 6, but he couldn’t handle it, so he abandoned it and I just took it. I was a trainspotter when I was a child, so I used it to photograph the locomotives and trains.
You studied at Rikkyo University in Japan, then traveled in the Soviet Union and Europe. How did those experiences affect you? What were the most memorable parts? Were you traveling alone? What were you doing?
I studied sociology and politics, especially Marxist politics, and I wanted to see what was going on in Russia in the 1970s. After I came to the U.S. I took almost ten months off and went back to Japan. Then returning to the Uniteds States I took the other route on the Trans-Siberian railroad to Moscow. At that time backpackers were everywhere, young students living on $5 a day. I was just a young boy curious to see the world. I had one or two friends and occasionally we would meet each other and travel together.
Then you moved to Los Angeles to study photography at Art Center College of Design.
I enrolled in art school. I finished my college education in Japan in 1970, but it was a severe year with the student movement and most of the universities closed for almost one year. It was the same as the Paris 1968 student revolution and Kent State in the U.S.. I was at that time into the anti-Viet Nam War movement. Many U.S. soldiers escaped from military bases and were hiding in Japan. I was not a super activist, but mentally I sided more with the left-wing people. My father and mother’s business was established, but I didn’t want to take over the business. I wanted to be some kind of artist, maybe a commercial artist. My brother seemed a more capable person for the business, and my parents said, “You just do whatever you want. If you want to go somewhere, you can go.” They paid my tuition for Art Center in California.
Did you study photography?
I was already good. So I finished my college in Tokyo and transferred my credits, and as an artist I submitted my portfolio and they approved it and said, “Okay, you can skip two years.” I already was using a view camera, a bigger Mamiya 6, 2 ¼ or 3 ¼. I made some kind of commercially oriented pictures like flowers, watches, some portraits.
What was life like in LA when you were in your early 20s?
It was amazing. Flower children. It was the middle of drug culture. It was quite normal at that time. If you don’t take any drugs you are a chicken! Even IBM technicians were taking drugs to get some kind of brilliant inspirational ideas. I took it rather seriously as a psychological study to find out what my mind is like. Also Zen Buddhism was blooming and I had many friends in Berkeley studying Sanskrit. So I had this fascination and imagined how the mind works from a Buddhist or Zen point of view. I started reading many books on Zen Buddhism. There were Hari Krishnas, so many strange people moving around.
Tell me more about how hallucinogens impacted your outlook.
Hallucinogenic drugs changed my perception and my state of mind. While on the drug it’s impossible to make a record. It’s hard to explain while you are in a trip what it is like — a nightmare or a good dream. Either way, it’s hard to guess how much time passed.
In the long run it’s probably reflected in my art. This hallucinogenic vision can be this white screen. I could imagine this is similar to the result of my study of my mind. It can be shown in this way.
Why did you head to New York and what did you find there?
After almost four years in California I thought it’s enough. I graduated so I had to get a job, and probably New York is the best place to find a job. So I moved. Commercial photography was the only possible job I could apply for, because I was trained as a photographer. I worked as assistant for several commercial photographers, but I couldn’t last more than one month. I just didn’t like it. Then I encountered the New York art scene through seeing many galleries and found out that contemporary art was the field I fit into.
For a brief period didn’t you also dealt in Japanese antiquities.
I came here in 1974 and my antique dealership started from 1979. The gallery was called Mingei. I started collecting folk art and furniture from the countryside of Japan and sold them in my gallery. But I quickly became interested in more serious antiquities.
How did your career as a professional artist begin?
For five years I was able to live with applying for grants – a New York State art grant, a Guggenheim, one from National Endowment For the Arts. Within two years I started to make the “Movie Theater” series and the “Diorama” series. The first “Diorama” series I brought to MoMA in 1976 or 1977. John Szarkowski, the photography director at that time, happened to see it. He was a mediocre photographer himself, but he was the king of the photography world. I don’t know whether they still do it, but there was a portfolio review. You could drop off your work.
I dropped off my portfolio and was asked to pick it up a week later. I went to pick it up and the secretary said, “Mr. Szarkowski wants to see you.” And I was invited to his room. And wow! He said, “Your piece is interesting. I want to buy it for the museum. How much do you charge?” I said, “I never sold anything.” It was the first thing I sold. So I asked him, “You price it. I have no idea.” He said, $500. (It was a 20 x 24 inch photograph.) At the exit there was the secretary, a mean looking old lady. She gave me a paper for the purchase and she said, “You know, usually artists give 50 percent discount to the museum. It’s up to you,” she said, “but it’s not officially approved yet.” So I started to get an understanding of the art world. Of course, I gave them the discount for $250. That’s how I started.
So it was part of the museum collection, and I asked John to write a recommendation letter for the Guggenheim grant. It was a chain reaction. The Guggenheim grant at the time was something like $6,000, quite comfortable. That made it possible for me to travel around the United States to photograph the theaters.
You must have had many ideas for series over the years. Which ideas have not panned out?
Which didn’t work? None has not worked, but I am still investigating how to do some. Conceptually I have a bunch of ideas that I want to do, but finding the technical solution to make it happen, that’s the hard part. So I am always testing and practicing, but it’s a corporate secret.
You always use a large-format film camera on a tripod, and your exposures can range from relatively short to 20 or 40 minutes for the Dioramas, and hours for the Theater interiors, which last the length of the entire film. You created a special device to stabilize the camera for those pieces. What is that like?
Yes, film holders. It took almost 10 years to find why the image is sometimes not too sharp. It was because the film is moving inside during long exposures. Sometimes it is too cold or too hot inside compared to outside, and the film tends to move. So it has to have a specially designed holder to keep the film still. The challenge is coming up with the technical capacity.
For the Architecture series, to make the images out of focus, the focal point is set at twice infinity. In a regular camera you can focus the background only at infinity, but with a large-format camera you can put it at twice infinity. It is conceptually designed. And for the Lightning Field series we made our own generator to make a spark with maximum safety. We were often shocked. Before I did it, I had my assistant do it!
Those works were shown at Pace Gallery in Chelsea. Can you talk about your commercial representatives?
I have two major galleries – Pace in New York, Fraenkel in San Francisco, and Gallery Koyanagi in Tokyo. Also Pace has a space in London. I decide what I want to show. There is a production capacity, but I have to give them a show at least once every two years. And also for the art fairs that they show in I have to give some to each, and make sure they do not compete with each other. It is very difficult politics now. I need traffic control.
Have you installed your photographs in private homes? Have you seen how collectors install them?
Not so many. I try not to get involved, otherwise it’s too much. Many rich people hang my Seascapes in their bedroom. It’s better not to be mixed with Frank Stella or something. I always criticize collectors who try to hang everything they have. It’s very bad taste from the Japanese standard of aesthetics. Japanese choose one important piece for the day, or for the guest, and then don’t show it again to the same person twice. It’s a tea ceremony concept.
Did you choose the large Theater piece hanging above your desk just for me?
Yes, this morning I hung it. I just finished this. It is the most recent “Theater” piece. I am shifting to Europe now, and this is an 18th-century opera house in Siena. The opera theater has their own screen to have rear-projection images, so we brought my own projector and projected a movie that I chose.
Do you produce your photographs in different sizes and design the mounting?
We usually make five large ones and twenty-five smaller one. For the large size they are mounted on an aluminum panel with anti-reflective glass. It works – it looks as if there is nothing covering the image. The frame is newly designed, as well. I have it made here in New York. It is heavy. That piece needs three persons to lift.
What are you looking forward to? Do you have a new series you are working on?
I continue doing the “Theater” series in a different way. I am photographing opera houses. It used to be that any theater I photographed must have a film projector, but now I can bring my own video projector and choose the movie to project. It gives me more options. I am still continuing Seascapes, as well. The Diorama series is pretty much done. I still have a bunch of ideas that have not been hatched from the egg. I cannot tell you. They are still being cooked in my mind. They can be photographs, the Architecture series as well, but actually I am really into making architecture. So it’s time to mix things together.
Jason Edward Kaufman//
This article appeared in Luxury magazine, Winter 2015, pp. 218-233.