- Twice Infinity: Sugimoto Hiroshi’s Architecture Series
Photography was once considered the vera icon in modernity, a reputation that it has tried to justify ever since. But the “world out there” became increasingly suspect and uncertain as modernity unfolded, with the ultimate result that so-called reality no longer attracted the imagination. At that juncture there was no more use for photographic realism; that is, for capturing external reality. Every technique looks old when its motives look old. Photography no longer shows us what the world is like, but what the world was like at a time when people still believed that they could possess it in the photograph.Hans Belting1
Based both in Tokyo and New York and with a long record of international exhibitions and publications, Sugimoto Hiroshi is a photographer with a truly global profile. Since the 1970s, his work has demonstrated an acute self-consciousness about the medium of photography and has challenged the concepts of linear time and of “progress” so crucial to the grand metanarrative of modernism.2
The Architecture series, which Sugimoto began to produce in 1997, can be viewed as a sober homage to the modernist architectural canon, but must also be understood as an ironic critique of those designs and the history of their representation. At the heart of the Architecture project is a tension between the series’ content—widely recognized modernist designs—and the photographer’s out-of-focus and fragmented treatment of these subjects. The dominant styles applied in the photographic representation of modernist architecture while quite varied, have, nonetheless, tended to employ sharp focus in order to document designs effectively. In some of Sugimoto’s images, however, it is difficult for the viewer even to recognize the subjects of the photographs as architecture let alone identify any specific designs. Especially when viewed in the context of the genre of architectural [End Page 63] photography that has tended to share the modernist rhetoric of newness and precision, Sugimoto’ portfolio, which in some ways harkens back to an earlier pictorialist tradition that many modernists emphatically rejected, seems curiously out of place. Why treat these objects in this way? Is this romantic nostalgia, or a manifestation of the disillusionment with modernism suggested by Belting?
Sugimoto’s process seems to fly in the face of the ideology of “originality” so central to avant-garde rhetoric.3 First, he chose designs that already enjoyed a secure place in the modernist canon. He then studied the most familiar photographic representations of those buildings before producing his own. In an interview with Print Magazine, he described his approach in this way:
I find as many pictures of the building taken by other photographers as I can, to get a clear idea of the most common perception of it. Then I just re-create that established, idealized view. I’m looking at the buildings as historical phenomena; I’m curious about why they became famous. I’m not trying to show my own taste.4
Remarkably, Sugimoto is neither claiming that his photographs should serve as objective documentation of the buildings, nor that his photographs are expressions of his own subjective responses to the designs themselves. He describes his photographs as the representation of the consensus of past representation of the buildings, a strategy that manifests both Sugimoto’s self-consciousness about canon formation and his longstanding effort to interrogate the nature of his medium.
Sugimoto’s photographs are, however, emphatically not like Sherrie Levine’s re-photographed reproductions of photographs by Edward Weston or Walker Evens, which are difficult to distinguish from their sources. Sugimoto might have emulated typical perspectives or framing at work in his photographic models, but his often dark and blurry images seem a world away from those sources.
As Sugimoto recalls in his essay “Rikyū Modern” (Rikyū modan, 2008), when he first started to visit potential subjects for the series, he realized that a number of the buildings, many of which were over 50 years old, were in a dilapidated state. Although the general appearance of designs might still have survived, he suggests that in some cases the structures were barely able to stand up...