Episode 31: Hiroshi Sugimoto's Byrd Theater, Richmond, 1993 (1993)
VOICE 1: First off, it’s obviously – these are images, black and white images, of, like, an old theater. Most of them look old, yeah. Kind of Baroque looking? But it’s almost kind of creepy? Because of the white glow from the center of the stage. And there’s no one sitting in the theater? So it’s almost kind of giving me kind of a horror movie feeling? [laughs] But at the same time, depending on how you look at it, it can be calm, calming, ‘cause it just looks very quiet. And peaceful.
VOICE 2: Kind of like anticipation, to me. You know, like, that feeling of waiting for something to start. That’s what I get.
VOICE 3: Excitement! Because it’s like, the theater is about to begin. You’re about to see exactly what’s going to happen.
VOICE 4: Yeah, you can see the architecture around the stage, the different carvings, and textures, and you can see a little bit of the seats, too, in the front row. They’re lit up in the light and it’s all coming from the front stage, and it creates a very moody feeling in the picture. You know, black and white photography, lots of darks, but the contrast, right around the stage – it’s bright white, and then right next to it is the deep blacks. And that just creates an interesting visual, it draws you eye right into the center of the photo.
VOICE 2: To me it feels kind of lonely. It’s a lonely, empty theater too, you know?
VOICE 5: Still and strange. And it’s almost, like, sad. These are, you know, they’re very elaborate, you know, kind of beautiful old theaters. And they’re empty. And dark. And there’s nothing on the screen.
VOICE 1: Because if you’re describing a cinema or a movie theater, you have a motion picture, you have a play, you have people acting, people moving. This is a blank screen, there’s no one in the theater, nothing is moving. It’s just almost, like, dead, except for this white screen that’s showing absolutely nothing.
VOICE 2: There’s almost like a, maybe like a nostalgic feeling?
VOICE 6: It was important, but now it could be obsolete.
VOICE 2: I feel like it has, like, some kind of importance to someone.
VOICE 7: When I first saw these, I thought that they might be windows onto God. Just because it’s blank, it’s white, it’s all kinds of light all mixed together. But the longer I looked at them, I thought, well, maybe it’s what I’ll see at the end of my life, when I’m flashing back and looking at the movie of my life. ‘Cause I’ll be the only one in the theater, and I’ll have the best seat in the house, and I’ll get to see it all.
I was on a bus one time, looking around, minding my own business, when I saw an ad for a local church. The ad was just this one quote. It was attributed to C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia series, and a well-known big-time Christian. It read: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.” And I just fell in love with this quote immediately. I’m not a Christian – I’m not even a terribly observant Jew – but I worship at the altar of the written word, and man, is that a great line. It’s such a perfect, beautiful metaphor for understanding, innately, something large and abstract through what it brings into focus. You don’t need to understand the thing itself, maybe it’s not even understandable. But you understand what it lets you empirically experience, what it brings into your life. I don’t understand the nature of love, really, but by it I see the pink at the tips of my husband’s ears and my heart grows three sizes.
This image, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Byrd Theater in Richmond, makes me think of this quote. Because to dive into the photographs of this seventy-one-year-old Japanese photographer and architect is to take on this big, abstract thing through what it illuminates. For him, it’s not love, or God, but time. His work, over and over through many different series of photographs, all take on the nature of time; they all, in his words, “exposing time.” And it’s interesting to parse out the different kinds of time Sugimoto is talking about. It can be the infinite ripples of water in a quiet seascape or the sharp focus of fur on a prehistoric diorama. In other words, it can be time ongoing or a moment in time that has passed. For both, Sugimoto writes, “photographs function as a fossilization of time.” It’s a moment of stasis, of stillness. It’s capturing something so fleeting, you can’t actually capture it. Because the moment photographed will always be snatched, removed from its context, like grabbing a part off an assembly line. Whatever you do catch won’t really be it anymore. It becomes immediately outdated and functionally useless. It becomes a fossil. And yet, as we all remember from our childhood trips to natural history musuems, fossils are still invaluable. They’re relics of a time that has since passed. Like the pillars of Ancient Greek temples, or the sumptuous movie theaters from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
And if you couldn’t already tell, Sugimoto adores these theaters. As a little boy in Tokyo in the 1950s, he fell in love with them, with seeing movies with his mother, with the emotions evoked both from the films and from the magnificent little details of the architecture. Sugimoto’s most famous photo series is of these theaters, which this image is part of – since the 1970s, he’s captured more than 100 movie houses and drive-ins, all in this same format: a glowing white square in the center, like looking into a camera’s viewfinder, which provides the light to the razor-sharp detail of the theater that surrounds it. These photos are striking on their own, but they’re especially powerful grouped together, when you can see the different kinds of architectural details from theater to theater, and how the quality of the glowing light changes. The MFA hangs four of these small, intimate photographs, close enough together so that none seem isolated, or too small against the white walls. They’re hung in the first gallery of the exhibition Seeking Stillness, which is on view until September, but even if you can’t make it to exhibition itself – which I assume is the case for most of you – the name really says it all. The exhibition was created in anticipation of a motherlode loan of Rothkos from the National Gallery in DC, which comprise the final gallery of the show and which we’ve already discussed in episode 24. The MFA culled its permanent collection to find the objects that best prepared a visitor to walk into a room of Rothkos, the objects that create a sense of, well, stillness. The objects throughout the show are gently monochromatic, with no jarring textures or even color at all until you arrive at the Rothkos. They’re hung on creamy warm white walls with ample room to breathe, as breezy as wearing linen on a hot summer day. All of them evoke a meditative sense of stasis and reflection.
And yet, as Rothko has taught us, the act of reflection isn’t necessarily relaxing. Rather, it’s the first part of a two-step process: we seek an environment of stillness to better listen to our own internal noise, so that we can then take the next steps of processing that noise and arriving at a kind of internal stillness. Really, that’s what meditation is all about. And what makes this exhibition so powerful is that it is simply full of images of emptiness that we in turn fill up. Everywhere we look, from Agnes Martin to Edward Weston to Sugimoto to Rothko, there’s a representation of, essentially, nothing. And it turns out we humans are really bad when it comes to nothing. We need a something. We create narratives, it’s what we do. And it therefore takes an enormous amount of restraint, of quieting our own interiors, to approach this photograph and to allow our eyes to stare straight into a seemingly blank screen, like an abstract white painting, and simply let the calm glow warm up a very specific interior of a grand old-timey movie theater. But it’s worth the effort. Because this is how we best prepare ourselves to approach any of Sugimoto’s photographs, and to truly experience this fundamental tension he creates between the abstract and the specific – and from there, to truly appreciate how he captures time. But we’ll get there.
Of course, the tension between the abstract and the specific is a familiar one. We see this in 20th century art all the time, from Edward Hopper’s quiet narratives that are at once generalized and precise, to Roy Lichtenstein’s comic frames that are isolated from their stories. There’s no better way to describe something universally conceptual than through little details. And here, we’re looking at a photograph of a theater interior, and it’s incredibly, almost piercingly, sharp. Sugimoto uses an 8 x 10 inch large-format camera, all bellows and screens, like an accordion atop a tripod, and known for its exceptional precision. And by it, we see every detail – the fringe of the curtain, the arms of the chairs, the pudgy little columns of the balustrade, the illuminated exit signs. And this sharply-focused scene surrounds a glowing, ostensibly blank screen. So much detail surrounds so much nothing. But again, it’s the luminescent, empty screen that provides the light to see all of this exceptional detail, which in turn frames the emptiness of that luminescent screen. It's both an exquisite, highly-technical photograph of an interior and a deeply eerie portrait of a void, like looking into the white of an eye with no eyeball.
But the twist here is that it’s really not a blank screen at all. He opens up his camera shutter at the beginning of the movie, exposing the entirety of the film. In other words, this empty screen is actually the whole movie. The light that we’re seeing coming from the screen and lighting up the interior is really a long time-lapse of all 172,800 “after-images”, as Sugimoto calls them—all the light from the film condensed into one frame. And he learned to play with this light, to anticipate how it would affect the interiors. Different movie narratives, he discovered, give off different brightnesses. “If it’s an optimistic story,” he says, “I usually end up with a bright screen; if it’s a sad story, it’s a dark screen. The brightest movies are spaghetti Westerns because they’re all shot outside. But an occult movie? Very dark.”
And this photograph, which shows us the entire movie in one frame, is representative of the kind of unique artist Sugimoto really is. He’s an artistic oxymoron, delighting in giving blur as much sharpness as possible. He embodies both abstraction and specificity: as an architect, of course, he needs to be specific and precise – after all, no matter how beautiful a building is, its walls still need to be load-bearing; it still needs to be at least somewhat functional. But he also revels in the intangible world of ideas – he cites Picasso and Marcel Duchamp as his primary influences. Of course, architecture and Dada exist across a pretty artistic broad spectrum – I mean, no one would ever feel safe in a building designed by Duchamp. Yet Sugimoto seems to be able to bridge the two, all the while creating something in these photographs that is wholly his own. Look at what he accomplishes here: he has created an ingenuous light source to illuminate a darkened theater. The theater itself is a fossil, chock full of architectural details from another era, and magnificently captured because this light source is actually a condensed piece of time itself. Time, the most fleeting and invisible and powerful force that human beings can experience, is captured, even for just a moment, as a glowing, pulsing square that illuminates relics of the past.
These theaters, these relics of Hollywood’s golden age, are the most straightforward way that Sugimoto evokes time, because it’s a question of history and nostalgia for a world that no longer exists. In the days of watching Netflix on our phones in bed, it’s easy to overlook what an event it must have been to see these oversized movie stars on the oversized silver screens. By presenting these theaters in such sharp detail, it’s like he’s asking us to time travel, to place ourselves in the moment by placing ourselves in those plush velvet seats, which haven’t yet been blurred by a fading memory. “Look at Greece and the beautiful Parthenon,” Sugimoto once said. “It once was glorious, and now it’s in terrible condition. History is passing and we will not be forever. I can look out my window and watch New York City being built now. But maybe 500 years later, 1,000 year later, this might be ruins too.” And Sugimoto addresses this idea in his photos as well, these ruins. He has recently embarked on a new photo series, one that documents the decay of these grand movie palaces, many of which now sit abandoned and derelict. He shows films himself, bringing these theaters back to life with a white sheet for a screen, hung in front of a dilapidated background, like a bizarro version of the original photo series of pristine theaters – once monuments to the glory of the past, now victims of the very time he is attempting to capture.There’s an added layer we haven’t talked about yet, which is the fact that there’s an accepted sense of artificiality that comes part and parcel with Hollywood, but which we rarely consider part of photography. Of course, it’s nuts that we do this, that we harbor this delusion that photographs must be telling the truth, that they capture the world as it is, in contrast with a painter capturing the world through his or her hand. Photographs are just as easily manipulated, just as calculated, just as filtered through the eye of the photographer. We talked about this in depth when we looked at Henryk Ross’s Lodz Ghetto photographs in episode 20 – this false idea that documentary is objective and storytelling is subjective, when they’re really two sides of the same coin. Sugimoto loved playing with the idea that photographs can lie, producing a series of photographs of dioramas from natural history museums – seemingly-authentic polar bears on ice flows that are as fake as a movie set. When it comes to the theater series, he’s quite vocal about superimposing this whole movie at once is a creative act of the artist, not in any way purporting to be telling the story of the film. The film is just a tool of the artist, same as the paper he prints the photo onto. “Usually a photographer hangs around and captures the moment,” he wrote, “but I created my own illusion that doesn’t exist in reality. It’s just my own imagination — but I get to make my imagination visible.”
Of course, he’s not the first artist who has tried to make time visible. Looking at Sugimoto’s artistic influences, we’re reminded of how many 19th and 20th century artists we’ve explored who have tried to capture time on a canvas. And interestingly, it’s almost always by rendering movement. After all, capturing movement is capturing time, because you’re articulating both the space and the trajectory between two moments. And also interestingly, we see the role that technology plays. The artists most fascinated with rendering time tended to be the most affected by how technology was changing both their day to day world and their art. They became obsessed with the idea of pinning down technology’s speed, with, of course, technology’s help – consider the invention of the camera and its role in allowing artists to capture their moments in real time. Take the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who, in the later 1870s, experiments with multiple cameras that capture a horse galloping, like the individual pages of a flip book. In the short run, he proves, unimpeachably, that there is a moment in a horse’s gait when all four legs are off the ground; in the long run, thanks to his quick shutter speeds, his sequence of shots sets the stage for moving pictures. Then Picasso comes along in the early 1910s with a painting like Portrait of a Woman, which, as we discussed in episode 6, riffs on these multiple images by turning them into cubes, piling them atop each other, and experimenting with a highly intellectual exercise of capturing multiple perspectives at once. This is, of course, Cubism, which operates on the assumption that if we’re going to capture all of these individual perspectives of a single woman, we’re capturing their shift across space and time, because we don’t just stand still; our perceptions move right along with us. Then along comes Duchamp, who takes these overlapping cubes and repurposes them by giving them a direction to go in. In his Nude Descending a Staircase from 1912, each cube represents a different facet of her musculature as she goes from the top of the stairs down to the bottom, as though leaving trails of her imprint on the air. And then, of course, our good friends the Futurists borrow this idea and further infuse this dynamism with speed and power, showing every movement at once as their figures stride across canvases. And then we come to the present, fast forward eighty, ninety, a hundred years, and look at this movie theater. After all, what is Sugimoto doing in with these screens if not showing us every movement at once? And this is how he exposes time.
Time. This slippery little minx. Why? Why time? Why is time such an irresistible subject matter for artists? What is the allure? I guess you could consider it a form of chasing the dragon – think about Monet trying to follow the light across the sky in a potentially unending series of haystacks. There’s something seductive about impossible pursuits. But I think we’re hung up on too many verbs, too much activity – all this chasing and following and pursuing. We’re never going to grasp it. Playing with time is like playing with a Chinese finger trap; it’s futile to try to force it. And remember, these Sugimoto photographs are about seeking stillness. And to that end, I think there’s something he really values about sitting in the moment, about feeling it as it flows through him like water, and then bearing witness to that experience. After all, when he isn’t photographing movie theaters and dioramas, he’s capturing seascapes – calm, meditative divisions of monochromatic blocks, dividing the canvas in two, the water and the horizon, the ripples in sharp focus in the midst of the most gentle, endless blur. I’ve had one of these photos as my desktop background all week, and, honestly, I can’t recommend it highly enough. When you relax your eyes, the ripples of water give the sensation of moving, like you’re caught in an eternal moment of ripples, a placid boomerang of time passing, but they freeze up again if you stare directly at them. And after a little while of quieting your eyes, you notice that there’s a light in the middle of the water, like a lantern just below the surface, spreading its warmth from below. It’s actually the water reflecting the sun. But it doesn’t just sit glittering on the surface. Instead, it mutes its own presence, giving shadow to these infinite ripples, and gently illuminating everything else.
Special thanks to Nelson DeWitt, Rachael Levine, and the intrepid museum goers at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. For more information, past episodes, and all of the images, go the The Lonely Palette.com, or follow us on Twitter, @lonelypalette, or on Instagram, where I regularly post bonus images from each episode, @thelonelypalette, or like us on Facebook.
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The Lonely Palette is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a new collective of idea-driven podcasts. And I’m thrilled to announce that Hub & Spoke is expanding! We’ve welcomed in two new shows that I’m really excited about. The first is Culture Hustlers, where host Lucas Spivey interviews folks at the intersection of art and business, with the mission of keeping artists from starving. The second is Iconography, where host Charles Gustine tackles the icons, both real and imagined, that are defined by specific places. Season one was old England, specifically London, and the current season is New England. Read all about them, find their websites, and dive back in to all of Hub & Spokes current line-up, at hubspokeaudio.org.