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.
Like all of Sugimoto's work, these pictures have been taken with a technical view camera that shoots huge 8-by-10-inch negatives. It's the kind of camera that consists of a long bellows, with a tea-saucer lens attached at one end and a ground-glass viewing screen at the other -- in use, it looks like an accordion perched on a tripod -- and that asks the photographer to stoop under a black cloth to look through it. It produces an ultra-precise, highly resolved image of whatever has been set before the lens, as though the photographer's dedication to truth-telling won't tolerate the missing of a single hair or speck of lint. It's the kind of camera that produces a stunning "reality effect" -- an overwhelming sense, even in black and white, that the world must be just the way the picture makes it look. And in one way, it is: I doubt these dioramas' animals -- all stuffed, of course -- have ever been as fully, carefully documented as they are in Sugimoto's photographs.
Yet there's also an unavoidable sense that we're being tricked and lied to here: that these eminently truthful photos pretend to show us something other than what they really do; that their truthful view is supposed to be of living nature, not of the taxidermist's art. Of course, they don't even really give an honest impression of that museum taxidermy, plopped in its sculpted settings against its painted backdrops: When you're actually face to face with a diorama, it's easy to tell that there's no more than a few feet of 3-D depth involved before your vision smacks up against a painted wall; in Sugimoto's photos, such distinctions fade from view. What the Sugimoto picture really most closely approximates is the 2-D photograph that the diorama makers would have used as the basis of their artificial world -- a "real" nature photograph, no doubt much less crisp and convincing than Sugimoto's "fake," that would have had its own complex relationships with the reality it shows and with the fiction it then becomes the basis of.
Are we dizzy yet?
Things don't get much simpler in Sugimoto's other works.
Even those appealing movie palace views can take their toll on an inquiring brain.
Sugimoto made these pictures by setting up his giant camera at the rear of each movie theater, then keeping the shutter open for the entire duration of whatever film was being shown. The result is a gracious, dusky image of the ornate Beaux-Arts or Art Deco interior, with a huge, white, overexposed blank where the movie itself ought to be seen on screen.
Sugimoto's setup suggests that these photographs really need to be thought of as portraits of a movie rather than of the architecture that happens to house it. Yet all the crucial features of cinema -- its movement and narratives, even the play of light and dark that lets it speak -- are elided in Sugimoto's still images. The cinematic subject becomes a searing blank abstraction -- almost the antithesis of filmic art.
A movie screen that is normally a place you go for information becomes instead a vacant source of illumination. It becomes an impossibly huge "soft box" (as the photo pros call such lights) maybe 70 feet by 30, that casts a sexy, ad agency glow over the theater's nostalgic interior, "selling" it to consumers as the subject of Sugimoto's art. It's as though the friendly, familiar light of advertising artifice keeps drawing our eyes away from the emptiness at the heart of these portraits of cinema.
Did I just say that the virtual soft-box of Sugimoto's movie screens was "impossibly" huge? There is at least one real-life source of light that comes close to matching it. In a 12th-century temple in Kyoto, 1,001 gilded statues of the Buddha, sculpted almost at life size, face a translucent rice-paper shoji screen that fills a nearby temple wall. For a brief while in the early morning, according to Sugimoto's account, the rising sun filters through that scrim, casting an unearthly glow over the sacred figures. (That glow reads as unearthly in part because it has no equivalent in nature. We hardly ever see it even in man-made settings: Sugimoto says he had to get special access to the temple's morning light, before the monks came in at 9 to turn on the fluorescents.)
In 1995, Sugimoto set out to document those ranks of sculpted Buddhas, arranged nine-deep on low bleachers in a room-spanning row. Once again, he lugged his huge view camera in to do the job. The 48 crystal-clear pictures that came out of the shoot have been mounted edge to edge at the Hirshhorn, where they form a panoramic field of Buddhas that completely fill the picture space, just as the originals fill your eyes in Kyoto.
"Just as"? Maybe not. Sugimoto's "truthful" depiction of these figures is in fact hugely artificial. To get such an improbably crisp focus across all the figures at the same time, he had to twist his lens and film in opposite directions -- a trick you couldn't try at home even if you wanted to, because it takes the most sophisticated photographic equipment and full knowledge of how its optics and mechanisms work.
To get his lens-filling, square-on view of all the Buddhas, he also had to shoot from a high vantage point, where no ordinary viewer would ever perch.
Finally, it turns out that Sugimoto's truthful-looking panorama of the Buddhas shows us far, far more than the temple's 1,001 sculptures. Because the Hirshhorn panorama is made by assembling a suite of separate photos, in which the camera was moved over to catch a new batch of Buddhas in each picture, only the frontmost sculptures actually change with every shot. Each time the camera moves sideways, many of the back-row Buddhas seen in one shot are repeated in the next. "(Imagine standing at the back of a rock concert, looking at the two fans right in front of you. If you edge sideways so you're staring instead at the next two over, the people in the far front row will mostly be the same ones you saw a moment before.)
One cliche about Buddhism is that it achieves its spiritual goals by encouraging the most intense, direct confrontation with reality -- the here-and-now transcended by confronting the here-and-now. And yet Sugimoto's photographs, which seem to capture such notions better than most others might, are about as full of unreality and trickery as anything could be.
You could argue that they use Madison Avenue lies to hint at spiritual truths.
Still more contradictions are at stake in Sugimoto's pictures of landmark modern buildings: great monuments such as the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, shot once again on crystal-clear 8-by-10 film -- but this time with the camera focused so that everything is blurred in them. (Sugimoto boldly states in his wall text that the camera has been carefully focused on "twice infinity" -- but is happy to concede in person that, in optical terms, this means precisely nothing.)
The preternatural sharpness of Sugimoto's blur -- an oxymoron his pictures manage to give substance to -- makes you imagine it's your eyes that have gone awry, rather than the camera. There's no visible grain to let you know that you're properly focused on a blurred picture, rather than looking cross-eyed at something crisp. Get too close to these photos and your head may start to spin, as though you'd put on someone else's spectacles. Just as strange, Sugimoto's out-of-focus images actually have greater depth of field than a focused one might have: Instead of the normal photographic situation, where one part of a building is in focus while others go soft, Sugimoto's pictures provide an even, equal-opportunity blur across his entire scene. In Sugimotoland, the best way to capture the hard reality of modernism's greatest structures is by softening it.
Such talk could go on and on, digging ever deeper into Sugimoto's art and getting more and more lost in it.
But too much of it might distract from the work's own meanderings.