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SUGIMOTO Hiroshi 杉本 博司 (1948- ) Tokyo. One of the best-known Japanese photographers outside Japan. Based in New York.

Major themes Theater screens, dioramas, Buddhist statues, ocean horizons

Education Studied Marxist economics and German idealism at St. Paul's Univ. in Tokyo and graduated in 1970 with a B.A. Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles and graduated with B.F.A in 1972.

Career Calls his life a "series of accidents." In 1971, traveled across the Soviet Union by rail and also visited Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia to see Socialism in practice. Disheartened by what he sees, he gives up his Marxist idealism.

While traveling, decides to stay in California upon being attracted to all the interesting things going on. Decides to obtain a student visa which was the easiest way for him to stay in the U.S. Enrolls in an art school because it was the easiest kind of school to get into.

And in art school, the photography dept. is of course the easiest to enter. And so at a relatively late age of 24, he studied photography at the Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles and graduated with B.F.A in 1972. Experimented with drugs at age 25.

Moved to New York in 1974 and continued photography for four years with various grants. After his grants ran out, a financial crisis loomed. Debated whether to branch out into commercial photography or to stick with art photography (and poverty).

In the meantime, he married a Japanese artist and had a baby. After a year and a half, they decide to divorce. However, they needed to support the child, so he and his wife decided to deal in Japanese antiques. He thus avoided commercial photography and ended up being a dealer of traditional Japanese art. (Another "accident.")

The business became so profitable that they decide not to divorce. He spends the next 10 years scouring the Japanese countryside for antiques and folk crafts. He becomes expert on Japanese antiques and meets American museum curators. He was the only Japanese in New York operating a gallery.

The Metropolitan Museum was a major client which bought many pieces. The Met also bought Sugimoto's photographic works and eventually gave him his own show. He held a three-part exhibition at the Met in Dec. 1995 and received high acclaim.

He relinquished his antique business to his assistant and now works on his photography exclusively. He typically spends four months in New York (working in the darkroom), three months in Tokyo (to relax in summer and New Year's), and the other months traveling around the world to accept various invitations. Interior design is also a hobby. He hopes to retire in the Japanese countryside, not in New York.

Sugimoto works with one kind of 8x10-inch large-format camera (American-made wooden box) and only in black and white. He thinks color film produces chemical colors, not natural colors. Black and white gives a more realistic impression. He uses available light and often uses long exposures such as 10 min., 20 min., 40 min. or longer.

He starts with a specific vision in his mind's eye, and later figures out the technical details for obtaining the image. He does not go out and "hunt" for images. There is a lot of trial-and-error. He likes to show the facts and realities of his subjects.

Since 1976 and 1977, he has worked on three major series of work called "Dioramas," "Theaters," and "Seascapes." "Dioramas" are photos of dioramas in natural history museums. "Theaters" are interior photos of grand old theaters. "Seascapes" are stark photos of the ocean and sky meeting at the center.

He is attracted to the paradoxes of time. The diorama photos show painted backgrounds and props of prehistoric scenes such as the Neanderthal. The interior photos of theaters have a bright white movie screen due to a long shutter exposure while a movie was shown. He won the Mainichi Art Award for "Dioramas" and "Seascapes" in 1988. Also known for his Sanjusangendo photos of the Buddhist statues.

Awards Mainichi Art Award, 1988.

Exhibitions Exhibition at Gallery Koyanagi, 1997; review by Monty DiPietro

Web site:

Time Exposed

Reviewed on: 2004-01-14 Last modified: 2005-04-03

Book of Sugimoto's most well-known themes.

Published: 1995 Publisher: Edition Hansjorg Mayer, Stuttgart ISBN: -- Price in Japan: ¥2, Qualities: Hard cover, B/W photos Size: A4 landscape, 112 pp. Language: English

Sugimoto's best-known series called Dioramas, Theaters, and Seascapes are included in this book. The images, all B/W, are shown in several sections:

Wax Museums I Images of celebrity wax figures like Mae West, Valentino, world leaders, and the Pope from the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park, California and Madame Tussaud's in London, England.

Interior Theaters Interior shots of classic movie theaters in the US with the movie screen looking bright white due to the long exposures taken while a movie was shown.

Dioramas Dioramas of wildlife and prehistoric landscapes taken from museums of natural history. Since the images are in B/W, they look much more realistic than if they were in color which would show artificial-looking colors. This series was started in 1976 in the American Museum of Natural History.

Drive-In Theaters Long exposures of movie screens at drive-in theaters in California.

Day Seascapes Just a series of sky-meets-ocean horizon shots overlooking various oceans like the Sea of Okhotsk in Hokkaido, the Indian Ocean from Bali, and the English Channel. Each picture are split into two images, one of the ocean and the other of the sky.

Night Seascapes Same as Day Seascapes except that they were taken at night with the horizon barely visible. Long exposures were used.

Wax Museums II More wax figures, but instead of portraits, they are tragic scenes from movies or history.

All the plates are captioned with the place and year, which is nice.

There's also an interesting interview with Sugimoto who reveals the ideas behind his photo themes. All the works are related to time, hence the title "Time Exposed." He uses a large-format 8x10 in. camera and available light.