Hiroshi Sugimoto's haunting photos of empty theaters

Updated 17th May 2017
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Hiroshi Sugimoto's haunting photos of empty theaters
Written by By Orlando Reade, CNN
One night in 1976, Hiroshi Sugimoto had a vision of a shining screen. He had already conceived the idea of capturing an entire film in a single photograph, and in his vision he realized that it would produce a white shining screen.
The Japanese artist, who had studied at art school in California before moving to New York several years earlier, worked out that he could realize his concept by screening a film in a dark cinema and capturing the film within a single photographic exposure. He photographed his first film in the now-demolished St. Marks Cinema in Manhattan.
For more than four decades now, Sugimoto has been using this technique to shoot cinemas, opera houses and theaters. The photographs are gathered into a series called "Theaters," currently exhibited as part of a solo show at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Italy, and represents a meditation on the architecture of memories and their destruction.
I meet the photographer in his studio in New York. He leads me to a room where three large photographs are hanging on the wall: the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, the Pantheon, with moonlight coming through its oval window, and the Teatro Comunale Masini in Faenza, an 18-century opera house with a screen at the back of the stage.
In Faenza, Sugimoto's team projected "Le notti di Cabiria" ("Nights of Cabiria"), Fellini's devastating film about a sex worker lured into marriage by an unreliable man. Sugimoto's technique captures the film, but in doing so erases it. Fellini's entire film is reduced to a rectangle of white light.
Sugimoto has spoken about the experience of visiting the cinema as a child, how films would provoke in him tears, and the tears, shame. I ask him if there is any antagonism between photography and cinema, and he responds that photography is the father of cinema.
What also appears, in the disappearance of the film, is the architecture of the theater, which receives a gentle white light from the cinema screen. Sugimoto's series illuminates the structure and texture of the theatrical interior at a special moment, not as it is seen, fully illuminated before or after a performance, but during the spectacle itself.
The images evoke the sudden irruption of a mood that can be conjured in a single instant, but at the same time they remain blank, open.
Sugimoto's experience photographing and researching buildings led to commissions to design buildings and a second career as an architect. Over the past 15 years he has designed numerous structures, including a Mondrian-inspired glass teahouse at the 2014 Venice Biennale.
On the wall of his studio is the architectural plan for his most important project to date: the Odawara Art Foundation. Founded by Sugimoto in 2009 and due to open later this year, the museum will house a diverse collection of art -- Japanese and international, classical and contemporary.
The Odawara Art Foundation is located in the Enoura district of the city of Odawara, Japan, which lies between the Hakone mountains and Sagami Bay. Sugimoto says he traced back his first memory of the seaside to this place. The sea offers him an opportunity to travel back through the memory of his ancestors and also to move imaginatively forward in time.
Another long-term photographic series is "Seascapes," which presents another attempt to access ancestral memory through contemplation of the sea. He shows me three of these images, one from Lake Superior and two from a recent trip to Tasmania. He chooses locations as far from civilization as possible, and captures the sea when it is calm, witnessing subtle gradations in tone and texture.
Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto
Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto Credit: PIERRE ANDRIEU/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Many collectors choose to hang the seascapes in their bedrooms, he says, and it seems the images are prompts to a certain kind of thinking. The series, which will be exhibited at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris this October, presents an emptiness that is comparable to the shining screen of the theaters. Both "Theaters" and "Seascapes" frustrate the kind of gaze that aims to seek and identify objects. Instead, the pictures hold open a space for another kind of contemplation, in which the viewer encounters nature as a solitary individual and not as a social being.
It is, Sugimoto points out, a Romantic vision. He compares himself to Caspar David Friedrich, the 19th-century painter of sublime landscapes populated by ruins. Sugimoto's pictures invite the viewer to consider the possibility of a world after human civilization.
As the interview winds down, we turn to the window of Sugimoto's studio, facing north towards the glass buildings crowding around the High Line. He has occupied the studio since 2000, before the area was aggressively revived.
Pointing out a building designed by Zaha Hadid, dwarfed by other, newer buildings, he calls them quick, cheap constructions.
When I leave the calm of the studio and go down into the busy streets of Chelsea, I see a banner that calls it "The Real Estate Capital of the World," and I am reminded why the contemplation elicited by Sugimoto's photographs might feel necessary.
Hiroshi Sugimoto is at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Italy until Oct. 1, 2017.