Lightning and Fox Talbot: Hiroshi Sugimoto at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

By Jenni Davidson | 19 August 2011
a photo of a delicate leaf stems
A Stem of Delicate Leaves of an Umbrellifer (circa 1843-1846) (2009). Toned gelatin silver print© Hiroshi Sugimoto
Exhibition: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until September 25 2011

The 2011 Edinburgh International Festival celebrates the influence of the arts and cultures of Asia. As part of this, the National Galleries of Scotland have put together an exhibition of two collections by contemporary Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto that have never been shown before in Europe.

The collections, Lightening Fields and Photogenic Drawings, are very different from each other, but both reflect aspects of Sugimoto’s interest in combining art with science, experimental photography, and the links between photography and time.

Sugimoto has worked on various experimental themes before. From 1975 to 1999 he produced Dioramas; a series of photos of museum exhibits that challenges our perspective of what’s real.

He noticed that while the displays of objects against a painted background were obviously fake when viewed with the naked eye, the flat nature of the image made the scene look real when photographed. Following up this theory, he made Portraits, a series of photos creating apparently lifelike portraits from waxworks in Madame Tussaud’s.

a dramatic black and white photo of lightning
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lightning Fields 168, 2009. Gelatin silver print© Hiroshi Sugimoto
Sugimoto often experiments with long exposure times and unusual techniques. In his Theaters series, he made a series of images inside cinemas shooting the whole film in one frame, reducing them to white glowing rectangles.

These two current exhibits are no less groundbreaking. Lightening Fields is made up of photographs of lightning - however, they are not just pictures of this natural phenomenon; the image is actually created by lightning.

Sugimoto struck electrical discharges directly onto photographic film using Wilmshurst and Van de Graaff generators to create simulated strikes. Placing photographic film onto a metal plate, he charged the generator until he could feel the hairs on his arm stand on end before releasing bolts of up to 400,000 volts.

The results of this risky work are alive with drama. The technique makes it impossible to control the result exactly, so each monochrome photograph is unique and unpredictable. Some resemble forked river estuaries in black and white. One looks like a flower with a trail of stars. Others look like leaves, snowflakes or fireworks.

an indistinct photo of showing vague shadows on a roofline
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Roofline of Lacock Abby (circa 1835-1839 (2008). Toned gelatin silver print© Hiroshi Sugimoto
The second half of the exhibition, Photogenic Drawings, expands the theme of experimental photographic technique, but returns to the very beginnings of photography. Photogenic Drawings are Sugimoto’s prints of original 19th century negatives made by the British pioneer, William Henry Fox Talbot.

Fox Talbot invented the method of producing a positive image from a negative that we use in modern photography. In 1835, he created the earliest known negative using a camera, a "photographic drawing" of a window at his family home of Lacock Abbey.

This developed from a technique that he called photogenic drawing, in which he coated drawing paper with a salt solution and waited until it dried before adding a layer of silver nitrate. By placing a leaf or a piece of lace on the paper and leaving it out in the sun, he discovered that he could create an image. From here he made his breakthrough discovery of using the negative image to create a photograph.

Sugimoto has collected Fox Talbot’s rare early negatives, which probably date from the time before positive images existed. Working directly from these extremely delicate original negatives, he has printed pictures that Fox Talbot himself may never have seen. 

a photo of theleaves of a pressed flower
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Leaves of Paeony (June 1839) (2009). Toned gelatin silver print© Hiroshi Sugimoto
Sugimoto’s prints of plants, lace and people are far bigger than Fox Talbot’s originals and this makes them appear both old and new. The coloured leaves look oddly like modern art and some of the photographs are surprisingly detailed, such as the close up of a piece of lace.

The people in the pictures are hazy and shadowed, but the fuzz and the graininess lends them an air of ghostly mystery. This must surely have been how the Victorians felt on seeing the first photographs.

In terms of west meets east, this exhibition certainly demonstrates how a line from one 19th century British photographer to a 21st century Japanese one has created some very exciting innovations in the medium.

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