Lightning Fields 168, 2009

Interviewing Hiroshi Sugimoto is a humbling experience. His past few days were spent speaking to journalists eager to interview one of the world’s greatest photographers, and the weariness is visible. But where most artists like to launch into a well rehearsed statement about their work, he is quietly waiting for my next question, a soft smile on his face. But then again, Sugimoto is not like most artists.

His new show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival’s exploration of the Far East, for which he chose his two most recent series, Photogenic Drawings and Lightning Fields. The former shows large scale reproductions of the early negatives of 19th c. photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot who, Sugimoto says, “gave me intuition of the Lightning Fields study with his photos.” The second series is produced through the play of violent electrical discharges on photographic film. Shown in Europe for the very first time, the works have already gathered rave reviews from the press and admiring gasps from the Gallery staff.

Photogenic Drawings (the term Fox Talbot used to describe his first images) is not just a visual testament to photography; it is the story of its origins and the narrative of Fox Talbot’s life.

The series takes visitors back to 1833, when Fox Talbot went to Italy for his honeymoon and, frustrated by his inability to sketch the surrounding landscape, decided to invent a machine to this extent; the same trip during which a sunburn got him thinking that the effect the sun had had on his skin could be reproduced onto paper.

Stem of Leaves and Flowers, circa 1834 - 1839, 2008

The photos of leaves and flowers reveal the details of how the inventor placed the botanical specimens on light-sensitive paper and in the direct sunlight, to create the very first negatives. The different shades of blue, green and sepia show the different chemicals with which he experimented to fix the image on the paper(he found a strong solution of table salt did the trick). The blurry oriel window and roof lines describe Lacock Abbey, where Fox Talbot conducted most of his research. A decade of his life, presented through the photographed objects slowly getting clearer; ten years during which Fox Talbot took what are probably the very first portraits in the history of photography, and which have most likely never been developed before, even by him. His family’s governess, two relatives, and a young houseboy employed at the Abbey who also served as his assistant; his features are so serious and his outfit so typically Victorian that it is difficult to realise he was only 14 or 15 at the time the picture was taken.

The 180 year-old negatives are now so fragile that any viewing is limited to fifteen seconds of dim light. “Of course, it’s hard to convince museum people [to let me develop them],” Sugimoto starts.

“I bought my own 15 pieces and worked with the Getty Museum and the Met Museum; they both have a major collection of negatives. As do the National Media Museum in London.” He adds with his typical quiet laugh, “But I didn’t have a contact there, so I didn’t ask them.”

Acquiring the works was however not simple; for Fox Talbot negatives don’t come by easily and aren’t cheap either. Sugimoto recalls, “They’re not available at all! I have a friend in New York who is a private collector and private dealer. I contacted him and he showed me his collection.” He adds, “They’re quite expensive. $400,000 on average.”

The negative of an exquisite, delicate piece of lace was in fact half a million dollars, making it the most expensive image displayed in the show. Next to it, the portrait of Amelina Petit, the family’s French governess, was a ‘mere’ $30,000 (the cheapest negative) despite its mesmerizing Vermeer-like quality. Half of the face is in the shade, in a soft and peaceful scene with details that blur the closer one gets to the photo. The unexpectedly lower price came from the fact the original, much smaller negative was thought to be under/over-exposed; Sugimoto was able to immediately identify the beauty waiting to be unveiled in the positive image.

Believed to be Mlle. Amélina Petit, Talbot Family Governess circa 1840 - 1841, 2008

Across the corridor, Sugimoto describes Lightning Fields as the process of “turning an ally into my nemesis”. Unable to avoid the problem of static electricity which would often ruin his photographs, Sugimoto started applying electrical charges on film. Inspired by the experiments Fox Talbot had conducted on electricity with Faraday, he tested various generators before settling on the Van De Graff generator, capable of producing a charge of 400,000 volts. The charge is then applied onto a film laid on a wired plate, that is then discharged and developed; the mesmerising result is that of a light particle caught on film.

As Sugimoto and his assistant admit, in a very matter-of-fact way (“Yes.”), to getting shocked several times during the process, I wonder if they sought scientific advice first. Sugimoto brushes it off with his usual laugh, “Nothing so professional, just a sense of how dangerous it was. Just to get the level of danger.”

His unusual practice also extends to the frames he commissioned for the Photogenic Drawings series. Made of lead by a specialist company, the exhibition technicians were required to wear special protective gloves to handle them. “It’s a nineteenth century feeling I wanted created… A kind of classical, antique feeling.” he explains. The health issues revolving around the material also means the company used by Sugimoto is only allowed to produce so many frames a year. As he adds softly, “The Health Department stepped in. A hundred is the limit.”

The power of the Lightning Fields images resides in their ethereal and highly evocative quality. The sparks are often compared to trees, a snowy, deserted landscape or early life forms. The intensity is such that one feels compelled to walk into the picture and look closer, only to find the details vanish into what could be a photograph, a charcoal drawing or even an oil painting.

Lightning Fields 138, 2009

Some images present branch-like shapes that morph into delicate, feathery strokes. Sugimoto explains those specific images are created by using a salted solution to discharge the films, as opposed to discharging them in dry air. The idea came to Sugimoto after he had conducted his early experiments in what he describes as “very severe winter conditions”.

“After several years, I decided to move to a more moist condition - more like a spring day, with higher temperatures and humidity more than 50%. As I expected it’s very hard to create a spark in that air. So one day I just gave up, but [without that spark] the film itself is very, very highly charged. I didn’t know what to do, so I just dipped it into water, just for no reason. And then I saw the release of the images in the water. So this is a new stage, a new discovery.”

Sugimoto experimented further, eventually setting for water salted using Himalayan salt. He explains, “Panspermia is how life started on Earth. It’s about the impact of meteorites that contained amino-acids, and the strong energy it created when it hit the water - that’s how the first organic materials developed in the water.”

He adds, “The primordial sea used to be saltier than now. This is just a very conceptual idea, but [I thought that] if I used water salted like the primordial sea… I knew that Himalayan salt is [left from the] bottom of the primordial sea. So that salt contains the primordial formula of the ancient sea.”

He concludes, “My interest is to recreate the primordial state of the sea.” and simply adds “And then sparks arise.”

Sugimoto is still working on the Lightning Fields series, as well as others which often span over several years or even decades. When I ask at what point he decides a series is finished, his answer is simple. “It depends on the situation. Seascapes isn’t finished; I keep working on it. But it’s getting harder and harder to do, with the airport conditions and the security check; the x-rays damage the films. I’m mainly doing it in Japan so I don’t have to go through the airport.”

Although started in 1980, Seascapes is probably the series that brought Sugimoto to popular attention in 2009, when Bono chose one of the photographs as the cover of U2’s latest album. Images of the sea and the sky, with the horizon line dividing the image in half, they range from clear details of the waves to a landscape drowned in mist. I wonder if he carefully picks the seasons and corresponding climatic conditions, or if he sets to work on a location with a specific idea of what he wants to capture.

His answer is accompanied by his usual laugh: “How I choose the seasons? The most comfortable ones!” Specific climatic conditions, he adds, are “hard to estimate. I have to be there, usually in the springtime. I study the local geography and the weather tendency, then [work there for] how long…” He pauses. “I have no idea, just until I get something. Sometimes longer than a month.”

As the interview comes to an end, Sugimoto prepares for a talk to a lecture theatre packed with both amateur and professional photographers, who will eagerly queue to get their books signed. Some even ask the official event photographer if they can be featured in the shots alongside the artist. One breaks into a grin when showing the autographed catalogue, recalling how Sugimoto inspired his work throughout his own time studying photography.

And inspiration is probably what most will experience when visiting the exhibition, for the show succeeds in creating a world where one will slow down and contemplate the outline of a branch of rosemary or old China vase, or the sublime in a transient stroke of lightning.
[Marina Blake-Jones, 28 August 2011]

Images courtesy of the artist

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