Hiroshi Sugimoto, Emphasizing the Play Of Shadow and Lie

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 20, 2006

The world of Hiroshi Sugimoto's photographs is a world of contradictions.

It's a world where nature photos, taken with the crispest scientific precision, are about how pictures lie.

It's a world where a photograph of an old-time movie house, shot in the dark during the screening of an action film, can speak of stillness and bright light.

It's a world where high-resolution photographs of hard-edged modern architecture rely on blur.

It's even a world where ancient sculptures meant to convey the eternal verities of Buddhist belief are helped to do their spiritual work by absolutely earthbound photographic artifice.

Such contradictions and complexities are what have made Sugimoto, born in Japan in 1948 but long based in New York, one of the most respected artists working today. They are what have earned him the retrospective that just opened at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, where chief curator Kerry Brougher has given Sugimoto's photos lots of space and a deluxe installation.

It would be possible to run through the 100 or so works in the show in an hour or two, skimming their surface.

You might crack a smile, then move on, when you realize that the nature images are not real outdoor shots at all but photos of the dioramas in a natural history museum. (A polar bear on a fake ice floe contemplates his fresh-killed seal; vultures fight over carrion in front of painted skies; exotic monkeys hoot in a plastic jungle.)

At first glance, you can enjoy Sugimoto's theater pictures for the elegant black-and-white view they give of America's nostalgic cinematic past -- that's probably why they've sold so well.

It's not hard to go Zen in front of his Buddhas, not thinking for an instant about what has made them look so otherworldly.

But if you start to dig even a little deeper into any of these series, you could spend eons in each gallery, unpacking a kind of infinite regress of thoughts and counter-thoughts.

In Sugimoto's eerily precise diorama photographs, for instance, it's ideas of truth and fiction that keep trading places.

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