Fundamental things, like light and time, the sea and the sky, meet up with the utter artifice of movie theaters and museum dioramas in Hiroshi Sugimoto's black and white photographs. At once crystal clear and unfathomably ambiguous, the three series he produced over the past two decades offer a focused meditation on those rare moments when history's steady progression seems to come to an abrupt stop. The transcendence that is embodied in his pictures, however, shares nothing with the static perfection we associate with eternity. On the contrary, Sugimoto's photographs approach timelessness not by extending themselves further and further in time, but by compressing complex, ongoing processes into a single image. By erasing the traces of time, his images create the impression that they are singular instances, that their immanence has been given expansive, spatial form. This is, of course, the essential province of photography, at least before phenomenological concerns were consigned to the dustbin of history by many post-Modern photographers. In the attempt to transform photography into a discursive tool to illustrate reductive translations of theoretical sociology, "social-construction" was emphasized to the point that nature itself disappeared from the picture. What originally had been described as the "magic" of the photograph, or its capacity to present a glimpse of something utterly Other, was decried as being nothing but a lingering bourgeois myth, the residue of an elitist tradition.
Sugimoto's three stunning series gracefully take issue with the kind of thinking that inflexibly opposes nature and culture. Underlying each of his unique bodies of work is the steadfast conviction that even the most exquisite forms of artifice in no way preclude the possibility of eliciting authentic visual experiences. In the Japan-born and New York-based photographer's highly sophisticated estheticism, fakery does not automatically imply the hollowness of fraudulence, the distance of irony, nor the emptiness of cynicism as much as it presents the possibility of refinement, nuance, and self-conscious delectation. His impeccable, 20-by-24-inch prints are gorgeous hybrids of a Romantic desire for transcendence, an early Modernist impulse toward seriality and simplicity, and an absolutely contemporary willingness to engage the spectacle of mass media and kitsch. Sugimoto's photographs begin with the knowledge that nature is not some unchanging bedrock that guarantees the reality of our experiences. They also travel quite some distance to silently flesh out the points of intersection between cultivated responses and involuntary reactions. His pictures of the interiors of rococo and art-deco movie theaters built in the U.S. in the '20s and '30s brilliantly combine the meditative serenity of his sea- and skyscapes with the unnatural beauty of his still lifes of the dioramas in New York's Natural History Museum. Made from exposures that last the length of the movie being shown, each of Sugimoto's images depicts a luminous white rectangle surrounded by an empty and ornately decorated theater, every detail of which is visible because it is bathed in the strange, reflected light of the film. This blinding, saturated brightness presents the absolute blankness of the void not as culture's ultimate Other, but as the central impulse of art. The incommensurate comes back into the picture with Sugimoto's mesmerizing photographs of sublimity in miniature.