Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibit: Simplified complexity

There are some museum exhibitions that are worth seeing because they are interesting, beautiful or popular. There are other museum exhibitions that are worth seeing because they are an experience. The Hirshhorn Museum’s featured show on photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto is one of the latter exhibitions.

From start to finish the viewer enters Sugimoto’s world and is forced to see it all through his lens. The experience is created through the lighting design scheme, which varies from starkly bright to eerily dull, and the arrangement of the photos as they move the viewer from room to room.

The show begins with his “diorama” pictures and introduces the viewer to the question that is asked throughout: What is reality? Are you really looking at what you think you are looking at? Are you sure? I won’t give away the secret behind these fantastically captivating photographs; you’ll have to go and experience them for yourself. But keep in mind that there is always something more than meets the eye.

This is true also of his portraits in the following room. Are these subjects really who they seem to be? It certainly looks that way, but how could they truly exist in front of Sugimoto’s camera? These photos especially invite a closer look.

My favorite series of the exhibition is entitled “Theaters,” a group of photos taken at movie theaters around the country. However, in order to really appreciate how cool these prints really are, I need to tell you their secret. What appears to be a picture of a white screen framed by an intricately designed theater interior is actually an entire movie in one shot. Sugimoto set up his camera in a darkened theater; opened his shutter with the first frame of the film and shut it with the last. When he developed the film he was shocked to see that he had captured an entire motion picture in one glaringly bright screen.

The impact comes from the installation of this room, in which I understand Sugimoto was personally involved. Regardless of the size of the actual print, the pictures were hung so that all of the white theater screens were in perfect alignment. This creates a level where your eye must focus, whether you are looking at them individually or as a whole series.

The maze-like construction of the exhibition’s rooms adds to the wonder and excitement of what is to come. Alternating long, narrow hallways and large open rooms constantly shift our perspective and can restrict how one views the works. Sugimoto wants his photos to be seen in only a certain way, and the rooms are designed according to these intentions.

The room that most impacted my experience would be the series of “Seascapes.” The brilliant exhibit design of this room is so striking that I found it difficult to leave. The low lighting contrasted with carefully considered spotlights emphasizes Sugimoto’s sea, which seems to dissolve and rematerialize before our eyes as we move with the tide. Again, as with the rest of Sugimoto’s show, are we sure we are looking at the same sea over and over again? Can we be sure that there isn’t more under that watery surface that is meant to be revealed?

Hiroshi Sugimoto will be at the Hirshhorn Museum until May 14.

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