November 20, 2014KR BlogBlog

Sugimoto Seascapes

I’ve been spending a lot of time with photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work lately. Born in Tokyo and spending much of his life in New York City, Sugimoto’s practice consists of ongoing series: photos of dioramas from natural history museums, drive-in movie theaters, seascapes.

It’s the seascapes that most fascinate me. The photos in the series are all 20 x 24 inches, positioned with the horizon at the exact center and shot in black and white. Sugimoto shoots from cliffs using a large camera from the late nineteenth century. He varies between shorter exposures and exposures that last three hours.

Some images can be seen here, and on the Art21 episode featuring Sugimoto here.

As a writer and a reader, I favor texts that seem new, that chart new waters or combine familiar elements in unexpected ways. I want to read something when I don’t think I’ve read it before. To say that a story or an essay is entirely familiar, that it has been read before, is a literary kiss of death: Like, this is a dead grandmother essay; or, this is another zombie apocalypse story. To name something as known is often to dismiss it.

Yet, the sea.

“Crash on crash of the sea,” H. D. says. “Man, looking into the sea— / taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you have it to yourself / it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing / but you cannot stand in the middle of this,” says Marianne Moore. Samuel Delany: “As morning branded the sea, darkness fell away at the far side of the beach. I turned to follow it.” “I need the sea because it teaches me,” says Neruda.

Sparing the moon, I can think of no image as regularly summoned as the sea. We render the sea because its meanings are endless and fresh in our renderings. It is like the human body in this way, like our body.

Sugimoto’s project is almost clerical in its prescription. The horizon is a straight line through the center, air above and water below. There is no color. The ocean approaches stillness. 20 x 24 inches. From a cliff. To describe a black and white photo of the sea is likely to remind us of sentimentality, of art for a doctor’s office. Like the sea is anodyne, even as we destroy it.

Why, then, are these photos magnificent? Why do I see the water through them as though I have not seen it before, and am struck wordless? What separates a photo of the ocean (boring, tired, done) from a seascape? “Crash on crash of the sea.”

In Sugimoto’s case, people often cite his incredible technical skill, the precision of those three-hour exposures. And this, certainly, is it. He can take an image that, even placed with the same equipment on the same Cliff of Moher, I could never take. He can touch his camera so that it accomplishes something that camera has not accomplished before. But the mystery does not lie in craft— rather, in how such craft allows him to attune to the transcendent. He can find a certain light.

I am not a photographer, so I cannot say precisely what this means, to find the light that falls on the water and reminds us of all that the water is and of what we are, nor how it is done. I watched the Art21 on Sugimoto lying in bed by someone who, on seeing the sea, took in breath audibly, and at a slower pace. But I find, in looking at his seascapes, a reminder that language might do this too. That nothing is too familiar. That in thinking very carefully of words, I might think very carefully of a body, say, or of a loss, and that the value in doing this seems to have no end. Put another way, Sugimoto reminds me why I read.