Go Sugimoto: The Exquisitely Extreme Photography of Go Sugimoto

Go Sugimoto has the exquisite eye of a painter. To realize his vision in photography, he sets the camera an extreme task that it is not routinely asked to perform—shooting at night with scarcely any light or shooting white on white. By doing so, he literally “photographs,” that is, “by light (photo) he draws (graph).”
Go Sugimoto Untitled from Walk in the Night
Go Sugimoto, Untitled from Walk in the Night, 2004
Sugimoto is the purist of all purists. He feels little affinity with color photography. His medium of choice is black-and-white, in which, he observes, “Night creates rich black, forcing long exposures.” Above all, he loves the winter night: “The black is intense, revealing the bottom of the night.” He finds that clouds especially photograph beautifully in the crisp winter air. His first mature series, Walk in the Night, resulted from four years of shooting the cityscapes of New York at night, from 2002 to 2005. His shooting period started in November, when trees shed their foliage. The first three months of the year were his favorite; the warmer months were reserved for the darkroom. In the first year of the project, he was still a student at the International Center of Photography (ICP) and he shot every night, roaming the desolate streets of downtown Manhattan (in the East Village and West Village) and the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Sunset Park and Williamsburg. If he went to Times Square, he stayed on the side streets. He disliked the clutter of people even at night, perhaps because they brought with them the “reality situation” of daytime. Besides, night is more “obvious” to him: “If photography is a means to capture reality, I can still make a completely different world at night, by working in the gradations of black.”
The night photography of Sugimoto makes a ready comparison with that of Provoke, a group of radical photographers working in Tokyo almost four decades ago. The works of all are grainy, often blurred, and out of focus. However, whereas the Provoke photographers—especially Moriyama Daido and Nakahira Takuma—endeavored to document the urban life as it was lived and seen by denizens of the underground world, Sugimoto creates a study in abstraction, intent on seeing a netherworld of the city invisible to the ordinary eye.
Go Sugimoto Untitled from Walk in the Night
Go Sugimoto, Untitled from Walk in the Night, 2004
Scenes captured in his Walk in the Night are phantasmic. A tree is not like any tree we know, seemingly glowing from within. It is accorded an iconic presence against the nocturnal air. A church stands as an ethereal void of itself. The camera did its job, and so did the artist. With the tree, he found one angle wherein the fluorescent light of a streetlamp hit its trident trunk like a spotlight. With the church, the camera faithfully captured the detail of sculptural ornaments on the illuminated facade; the artist then keyed up the contrast in the printing process to kill the detail, depriving the edifice of its corporeality.
It may come as a surprise, but Sugimoto produced Walk in the Night with a point-and-shoot, which was his first ever camera. He purchased it when he enrolled at ICP in 2002 at the age of 22, after a few years in New York. Long fascinated by photography, he had never had a chance to study it. His interest in making things first took the form of small collages and assemblages, which were obsessive and even stifling. Photography might have taught him to maintain a distance from his own vision, intervened by the mechanics of the film camera and the chemical processes of the darkroom.
In the next project, Paper_work (2004–05), Sugimoto took the completely opposite direction in every way. This time, he shot in pure white with a bare hint of shade. He retreated from the street into a makeshift studio in the corner of his room; he used a medium-format camera he borrowed from ICP over the weekend; he set up a meticulous composition of a sheet of white paper; he fussed over the lighting—all these in order to create a light-filled vision which is, again, phantasmic, in a sense that it is barely perceptible.
Go Sugimoto Untitled from Walk in the Night
Go Sugimoto, Untitled from Walk in the Night, 2003
Sugimoto works slowly and deliberately in series. He still has a few more ideas in his arsenal to realize, which he developed during his year at ICP by dutifully following the inspiring advice of his instructor, “You must find what you want to do, find your own expression, and you graduate with these ideas.” We just have to wait to see what’s next with Go Sugimoto.
Why did you decide to leave Japan?
GS: I planned to make a trip to New York since I had always wanted to go. (I even remember that I got really excited about going to New York when I was very little and watching a kid’s television program in the morning before going to school. It’s called Ponkikki. They always had some report from New York, so I often dreamed about it quietly.) New York is a good place to be beaten up for a while when I am young, to experience lots of important things in my life. I basically thought I could grow more here than living in Tokyo.
Why did you choose New York as your ultimate destination?
GS: I came here directly and I never lived elsewhere before. I am not sure New York will be my ultimate destination, but I am hoping it will be.
Has the experience of living in New York changed your style or process significantly?
GS: I started making my work since I moved here. I am influenced by Japanese aesthetics and global culture.
Do you ever regret leaving Japan?
GS: No. However, when I am hungry and eating pasta all the time, I miss Japanese food.
In this age of globalism, do you consider yourself to be a Japanese artist, an American artist, an international artist, or a hybrid of all three?
GS: I would like to consider myself as a hybrid artist. However, I might be called a Japanese artist because of my work. It also depends on what I make in my future.
Topics:  Art

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