Hiroshi Sugimoto: Seascapes

PILOTS CALL IT “spatial-D,” short for spatial disorientation—the dizziness and inability to determine where your body is in space when you’re deprived of a clear visual horizon. The phenomenon can send a pilot into a tailspin; viewers of Hiroshi Sugimoto: Seascapes won’t crash anywhere, but they will find themselves inhabiting a perplexing limbo where sea and sky meet uncertainly, their borders blurred, and the nature of each realm is thrown into question. Sugimoto has often chosen subjects that confound predictable responses: His images of glowing white cinema screens (achieved by capturing a whole film in a single exposure), a candle’s flame (again made with a long, long exposure), and American Museum of Natural History dioramas (eerily lifelike portraits of the fake) require us to think about what we are and aren’t seeing. The blank screens in the theater series could be beckoning portals to an ever-lucent, heavenly realm, or they could be the emptiness that human expression—at least, two narrative hours’ worth—ultimately offers. In either case, it is light and its fundamental role in visual experience that the photographer is exploring. In Seascapes, the images of bodies of water (the Aegean, Mediterranean, Black, and Tyrrhenian seas and the Indian, Arctic, and North Atlantic oceans number among the many locales) and sky have all been rectangularly framed and bisected by a line—sometimes distinct, sometimes not—that divides one from the other. Like similarly stark compositions by Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt, the minimalist geometry here belies subtler, less readily legible enchantments; in these unadorned seascapes, there are microworlds of energy evident only on closer inspection. In alchemical fashion, Sugimoto sets classical elements—water and air, most obviously—into relational tension. Earth is also present by implication: It’s where the photographer stands. But precisely where, we can’t say; he seems to be hovering above the shore. This improbable point of view, the flatness of the water (barely more than a ripple is ever visible), and the cloudless, untextured skies combine to confuse us and force an even more basic question: What are we looking at? The image of the Aegean Sea offers a gradual ascension from dark to light: Initially focusing on the frame’s lower portion, the eye locates the slightest suggestion of place in the horizontal grain. What’s almost recognizable as water gives way to an increasingly blurred and softly luminous zone as one element infuses the other, water rising into sky as sky descends into water. As Edward Weston did with his abstract images of the American West, Sugimoto offers landscape photography that invites a fresh understanding of the genre. But Sugimoto amplifies the restraint and formal rigor of his forebear—these pictures can’t be decoded in the way that, for instance, the vibrant patterning in one of Weston’s images can be recognized as a desert sand dune. Instead, these photographs depict a site of transformation, of neither earth nor air. It is a kind of no-place—an unmappable and treacherous region to which we are drawn ineluctably.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Aegean Sea, Pilion, 1990, gelatin silver print, dimensions variable. © Hiroshi Sugimoto