"At this time in my life, I’m ready to accept or own a kind of romance and melancholy or melodrama that I wasn’t ready to reveal before. It was always there in my inner life as an artist, but I was too afraid to share it."
ART21: Is your photography process straightforward? Do you use any special techniques?
SUGIMOTO: Special techniques? Well, this is my studio in the Chelsea area of New York. I am on the eleventh floor, facing the north sky. This is like a very traditional nineteenth-century painter’s studio in Paris—a brownstone building—the painter usually takes the top floor, facing north, so you never get the direct sunlight but the beautiful reflection of the sky. I am not using any artificial light here. All I am doing is shading up and down. And then I can control the light, so that I don’t have to be afraid of a New York City blackout.
ART21: The way you’re shooting, is it analogous to early photography?
SUGIMOTO: Yes, the earliest photography—probably nineteenth-century or early-twentieth-century style. People used to use very big-format cameras. And to me, this method still makes the best quality picture. We think we keep making inventions and tools as sophisticated. This system—it’s very hard to control, but it still makes the best picture. I am sticking to the traditional method.
ART21: Why is it hard to control?
SUGIMOTO: People used to use very simple things. Even this meter—there is no battery involved—a very simple method. People used to feel the light and how the light affected the surface of the object. The sky—light from the window—is constantly changing, every second, every minute. So, you really had to guess what was going to happen. You had to develop your own sense of the best balance of F-stop and shutter speed. I trained myself very well, spending thirty years doing this. So, the machine cannot measure some things, very intimate factors. What the early photographer gained from the study of nature, now people tend to rely on the computer or machines for. That’s not good enough. You need something more than that.
ART21: Talk about the way you print your photographs.
SUGIMOTO: I developed my own style of printing. I tested many different methods—Walker Evans’s method, Ansel Adams’s method. They used different kinds of formulas and chemicals. I spent quite a lot of time studying chemicals and how to develop large-format negatives. I also developed a sense to adjust the negatives. What kind of gray tone creates these nice gray tones? And what level of grayness makes black tones—not losing the medium tones, but extremely deep black? And then, highlights should be interesting but never washed out. There’s no pure white; there are always some tones there. Even in the deepest shadow, there’s a tone that is possible to print on the silver surface, but not in a catalogue. So, this is about studying the silver reactions, and the colors of the metal as silver, and the surface of ink tones. The colors of the metal—silver metal, silver colors—that makes the tones of the images so rich.
I’m a great fan of this process and the colors of silver—how to make as fine tones as possible, as a silver-print maker. So, in that sense, I am a very craft-oriented person. But at the same time, I want to make something artistic and conceptual. In general, you know, the postmodern artist never paid attention to craftsmanship. That’s something like a nineteenth-century cliché. But to me, I’m going the other way around. I really respect my craftsmanship and my hands. So, even though I’ve lived in this postmodern time, I probably call myself a postmodern-experienced pre-postmodern modernist!
ART21: What have you been photographing today, in your studio?
SUGIMOTO: This is one of my fossil collections. Years ago, under the water, this kind of life formation was made. This fossil was discovered in Russia. This horn is so rare to have as a complete piece. This was in a rock, kept heated, then dipped in the water. This crack separated, and then this fossil shape appeared. The person who discovered it very carefully worked on this part to save this horn. It’s quite an interesting piece.
ART21: How old is it?
SUGIMOTO: Four hundred fifty million years old. I feel very young!
ART21: Are there similarities between fossils and photography?
SUGIMOTO: Fossils work almost the same way as photography: as a record of history. The accumulation of time and history becomes a negative of the image. And this negative comes off, and the fossil is the positive side. This is the same as the action of photography. So, that’s why I am very curious about the artistic stage of imprinting the memories of the time record. A fossil is made over four hundred fifty million years; it takes that much time. But photography, it’s instant. So, to me, photography functions as a fossilization of time.
ART21: Does this relate to your Seascapes series?
SUGIMOTO: Not directly but indirectly, in dealing with this concept of time and history. In Seascapes, my subject matter is water and air.
ART21: What about the stillness in those photographs?
SUGIMOTO: Stillness—I’m not intentionally promoting it, but most people see it. And it’s very quiet and serene; that’s something that just naturally, automatically comes out through my work.
ART21: Can you say a little about this cabinet in your studio?
SUGIMOTO: This cabinet I call my portable Shinto shrine. The Japanese Shinto shrine—they always keep the mirror inside. That’s probably the reflection of the old memory, ancestors. And you know, worshipping our ancestors, this is the earliest stage of life formation in the world. This is what I have to pay respect to.
I was commissioned to build a Shinto shrine in Japan. So, I studied the history of Japanese religion, especially Shintoism. I found that it’s very serious to pay attention to ancestors—how you worship your ancestors—and then also the old memories and families, the origin of families, the origin of life itself. So, this is the most radical presentation of how we should pay attention to the ancestors.
ART21: You’ve also explored architecture as a theme in photography.
SUGIMOTO: Yes, this gave me a good education over the last seven, eight years. I’ve been visiting famous modernist architecture. This guided me to this kind of mixture of architecture, sculpture, and photography.
When I was working on the architecture series, I was actually photographing huge-scale architecture, looking up from the ground level. I wanted to transfer this sense of seeing the building from the ground floor. It’s presenting some kind of taste and sense of the early twentieth century.
ART21: Has minimalism affected your work in any way?
SUGIMOTO: I’ve known Walter De Maria—personally and not so personally—for a long time. When I first moved to New York City in 1974, there was a series of minimalist shows, including Walter De Maria and later the Dia permanent installation, The Broken Kilometer. So, I think that experience, of the minimalist movement in New York in the ’70s, gave me a very strong impression.
I always felt that, as a photographer, I tried to stay as minimalist as possible, but someday wanted to have sculpture experience. At the same time, I did a series of one thousand Buddhas in Kyoto Temple—this kind of installation similar to a twelfth-century Japanese temple. So, even before New York minimalism, the Japanese did it already in the twelfth century. So, I don’t owe anything to New York, I think.