REVIEW: Theaters by Hiroshi Sugimoto
By Erica McGrath
Is there anyway to confirm reality? Hiroshi Sugimoto has grappled with this question all his life and for forty years he’s attempted to answer it. He finds his answer through photography stating, “I saw the world as an illusory subject. It was only when the world was captured in a photograph that it acquired reality”. In 1976 Hiroshi Sugimoto decided he would begin photographing movie theaters and has not stopped since. Using a large format film camera he opens his aperture at the beginning of a movie and does not close it until the movie ends. What happens once the film is developed is sheer unexpected brilliance. In his most recent publication, Theaters, Sugimoto exhibits 130 of his photographs, spanning over the past four decades, displaying a vast array of movie theaters in all their luminance. In Sugimoto’s photographs a blaring white screen illuminates dark and empty theaters, or as he phrases it, “the excess of light illuminating the darkness of ignorance”.
In Sugimoto’s preface to Theaters he states, “To watch a two hour movie is simply to look at 172,800 photographic afterimages”. Today, movies run at twenty-four frames a second, which makes it virtually impossible to discern and process between each single photograph of the 172,800 included in a typical two hour movie. By photographing these movies, however, Sugimoto captures the thousands of photographic images from a movie onto a single frame of film, resulting in a luminescent white screen. Which begs us to ask the question, why? As seemingly straightforward as these photographs of theaters may appear, the origin behind them is far more complicated. They pose to be just as complicated as their creator. Sugimoto’s explanation is thus, “I wanted to photograph a movie, with all its appearance of life and motion, in order to stop it again… I must use photography as a means to shut away the ghosts resurrected by the excess of photographic afterimages”.
Sugimoto is acutely aware of the paradox his photographs of theaters present. Photography acts to freeze reality, and movies -made up of thousands of photographs- to bring this frozen reality back into motion. Sugimoto’s photographs of the movies, therefore, capture the moving reality back into its once frozen reality as individual photographs. While further complicating it, the images presented exist in their own realm, the realm of only what the camera sees: “The image was something that neither existed in the real world nor was it anything I had seen. So who had seen it then? My answer: it was what the camera saw”.
While the beauty of these photographs is clearly striking there is an element to them that leaves me unsettled; there is something hauntingly ominous behind them. Maybe it has to do with the old saying that Sugimoto quotes, "Real knowing comes without you knowing that you know. The minute you know you know, you no longer know”. In Theaters Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of theaters span from elegant movie palaces, to drive-in theaters, to abandoned and decayed appearing classic theaters from all over the world. I can only wish to know the titles of every movie Sugimoto was a witness to, and question why he chooses not to release that information. The book runs consecutively from 1976 to 2015 with, seemingly random placed, large white pages interrupting the photographs of theaters throughout the book. Perhaps to grant us moments of introspection on our own reality, and to reflect on the time taken to look through a book of photographs based on reality and time.