Contemporary art circles have been notoriously snobbish of late towards so called 'coffee book artists', who are seen to be less conceptually rigorous than some. Popularity was seen as a distraction from the serious side of art making, and for certain artists this has led to a distinct lack of critical thinking and discussion around their work. Of course this is a symptom of a lack of large scale bodies of work being seen together, so the two recent exhibitions of Hiroshi Sugimoto's work, may, for him, go some way to initiating such a discussion. There is currently a large exhibition, billed as 'his first career survey,' at the Hirshhorn Galley in Washington, and his new series, Conceptual Forms, was shown in Paris at the Fondation Cartier at the end of last year.

For this, Sugimoto becomes a cultural anthropologist with three fields of exploration - Mathematical Forms: Surfaces, Mathematical Forms: Curves and Mechanical Forms. The forms illuminate a lost modernist world of science and discovery translated into metal and plaster models.

The images on show were separated into 'brides' and 'bachelors' after Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass) 1915 - 1923. The nine Mathematical Forms which were hung on their own segment of wall, were to one side of Sugimoto's Large Glass replica, and nine Mechanical Forms, on identical wall segments to the left. But what relevance does this have to the way in which the images are recieved? The separarion seems a distraction from the series of images. They fill the exhibition space through Sugimoto's careful designing, but feel slightly interrupted being divided by Sugimoto's replica of Duchamp's Large Glass. Sugimoto's intentions become clearer when the models' circumstances are considered - their function and their modernist manufacture. He has talked of 'discovering Duchamp' within the scientific implements at the Teyler Museum in Holland, where these functional objects had been removed from their habitat and placed in a glass cabinet. He is aware of Duchamp's knowledge of the Conceptual Forms models through Man Ray, who also photographed them. His photos of the mathematical forms become replicas of something that does not exist in nature, but is a visualisation and model of a mathematician's concept. His claim of being a "pre-postmodernist" is justified!

Many aspects of his work can be, and are, linked to different movements and periods in art, from the development of photography in the 19th Century, to the conceptual and minimalist artists working in America in the 70's when he became a student in Los Angeles.

So does Sugimoto's work stand up to these associations and claim of being 'conceptual' and minimalist? Close links can be discerned between Sugimoto and Duchamp by his interest in the modernist era of the early 1900's and Duchamp's work, particularly Large Glass 1915 - 1923. Large Glass, whilst not overly conceptual within itself, shows the concepts and processes that led to the making of the work through the published notes of Duchamp. Produced as a limited edition boxed set of photographs, these were shown as an artwork in themselves and on the same playing field in the same arena as the actual work. Sugimoto describes his own Large Glass as a "third generation copy of the original" - a photograph of a replica of the original, which in Duchamp's eyes would have held the same value as the original. And there are a number of replicas of the original, so Sugimoto photographs not even an exclusive replica, but more of a readymade, found object. He sees all photographs as being of found objects, "stealing the image from the world" and making it into a multiple. He taps into two of the fundamental "Duchampisms" - the found object and the multiple, creating another multiple of what is already a multiple!

Conceptual Forms encapsulates Sugimoto's interest in photographing tangible objects that lead a path to theoretical and philosophical concepts and thinkings. He becomes close here to Conceptual Art in his re-apprpriation of these objects, which are taken from their habitat to a new one. Whilst not everyday in the sense of a urinal, or a tap for example, they are removed from their functional context as a teaching tool for mathematical concepts. In the questions they raise with regards to aesthetics, manufacture and process, intentions, and ultimately who and what dictates what an artwork is; they become a teaching tool for art.

Sugimoto challenges the viewer in a very reserved way to formulate some kind of answer to this question for themselves. For him, he has said "art resides even in things with no artistic intentions" and he can be seen to release this art from the objects through his camera and process.

It is as if this is an illustration for Walter Benjamin's writing on the cult value of an artwork and the photograph's place within art. The photographer in a sense took over the painters job in the 19th century with the development of the photograph, and painters were released from the day job of drawing the actual world, which was heralded as photography's great skill. They became free to explore within painting ideas and thinking that are inherent in a photo such as time, movement and space and for Sugimoto this is the link between the histories of photography and painting. Through his use of the photographic tradition and method this history becomes a tangible part of his images.

However, Sugimoto is also at odds with Benjamin and Duchamp over the cult value of a artwork. For while he creates this multiplication of a found object, it seems to be in homage to Duchamp's original. He talks of the original "having its own Duchamp spirit" that is unique and inherent to that one piece and so not present in the replicas. But Sugimoto feels a certain spirit in a work that the author did not (or would not) feel, or even agree with.

His cinema series highlights a certain sense of a photographic tradition that runs throughout all the series'. Not only is he putting his image through a mechanised process but his image is of thousands of 'found' images strung together and seen as a movement that have also been through the same principles of the process as his. It is a very accurate and meticulous process, necessarily so, as he explained to Thomas Kellein in an interview "It is like listening to insects in a field. With a garbage truck next to the field you won't hear anything..."

The division between the still and moving image is reversed - the moving image of the film projection becomes a white space and what we would normally perceive as being still - the surrounding landscape and sky - becomes the movement. Structurally and compositionally it reverses the traditional central subject, foreground and background relationship, with all the action instead taking place on the perimeter of the image.

The compositional boundary created by the camera and the photographic process allows the gallery viewer to have time to actually look at the image. For we see the same amount of light as the cinema viewer would, but condensed into one action. But we actually look at the part of the scene that the cinema viewer would probably ignore - the environment that the projection is in, and the structure of the space. This is central to all of Sugimoto's series in one way or another in that he gives us an ability to focus on the essential structure of the thing.
It is here that his work can be seen in a minimalist sense in that he uses the camera's constraints and typicalities to pare down his subject to the essential structures that are present.

So is this a preservation of the traditionally mechanised photograph that Sugimoto produces? He uses a nineteenth century large format camera to produce his highly detailed images, and materials that are in danger of disappearing with digitalisation. The process produces and controls the image through its limitations - print size is limited by the visibility of the grain of the film, which Sugimoto sees as undesirable. Sugimoto bucks the trend of late for large format printing and his images are surprisingly small, no more that four times that of the negative. This gives the large amount of detail that he achieves and leads to the sense of 'unseeability' that is inherent in his work.

Whilst the camera can in part be seen to control the image, Sugimoto's working practice is very close to that of a painter - he has an idea in his head and then goes about producing it using his materials. It is not surprising that he takes hundreds of images, of which a great many are rejected. He has said "I already have a vision: my work is almost done. The rest is a technical problem... the results have to coincide with my vision." It is a sense of craft, of using the camera as a tool to produce the finished pieces. In the seascape series he will visit the cliff or site for each particular image for a prolonged period of time, just as a Sunday painter might, to set up an easel and paint the landscape. Rather than paints and brushes he sets up his tripod and camera, and spends that day photographing a moving transcending object. He described his process as one of trial and error, taking years to get the process and method right. Once perfected he can put each theatre through the process to expand the series.

It's not just in the process that this is the case; the actual images have an important sense of surface and careful consideration that is inherent in painting. In this sense they are far removed from conceptual photography such as that of John Baldessari. His archive of film stills and snapshots of the TV, whilst removed from their narrative and placed into an alien one, have very different sensibilities to that of Sugimoto. The treatment of the image is one of a snapshot, rather than the meticulous creation of Sugimoto's images. Image quality is unimportant to Baldessari, instead it is his thinking processes and manufacturing processes that are important.

For Sugimoto, each image is a representation of a portion of time that varies between each series. To allow a highly detailed image the photos are generally reasonably long exposures - around 20 minutes - and in a real sense give the viewer that amount of time in a nutshell to try to allow them to be able to consider the image to the extent that he himself has. For it feels as if there is all the time in the world just to look at each building in Sugimoto's Architecture series. Seen 'in the nude', or in situ the buildings are generally heaving with people and have been photographed so many times that they are no longer even noticed. The Chrysler Building suddenly has space to be seen in and so becomes far removed from its natural habitat. It's interesting that the architecture series actually has the shortest shutter speeds to allow for the loss of focus in the image, but feels 'timeless' once away from its origin. Its structure can be seen more clearly by the removal of surface detail afforded by the lack of focus, and some of the most well known and recognisable buildings can be seen 'as new' again.

The images in the Cinema Series have a strange feeling to them of the loss of something, be it the actual film, the time spent in a dark room watching a screen, the other people who should be watching the film, or the actual physical locations. We wait expectantly for something to happen and then become distracted by the 'peripheral' details that have become the image. Like the architecture photographed by Bernd and Hilla Becher, the kind of cinema setting that Sugimoto photographs is fast disappearing in America as the multiscreen cineplex takes over from the movie theatres and drive-ins. These are iconic symbols of America from the Fifties and Sixties, just as the industrial architecture photographed by the Bechers is iconic of the industrialised post Second World War period in Europe. They too can be seen as a typology, an exploration and preservation of the fading architecture of the period. The lack of punters in Sugimoto's images highlights the loss of these buildings and structures, and adds to the sense that Sugimoto is giving the gallery viewer another chance to see and study them. He creates a replica and a memory of these arenas that represents the passing of a portion of time, and in doing so attempts to freeze, or slow that passing. Through allowing the viewer the time to study everything in the minute detail that it is presented in, the action of the film can be bypassed while still in a sense being experienced. We become suspended between the 'watching' of the film in the gallery - an actual moment - and the action of the film being shown - an imaginary one. For the viewer in the gallery must imagine the projection of the film taking place and can do this in an instant. To have seen the film would have taken, say, two hours yet the gallery viewer can view it at their leisure, free of the looming loss of time to see the event in real life.

Like the film that the viewers in a cinema have gone to see, the photographs are all absorbing, threatening to almost include the viewer in the cinema experience. Yet there is also a huge distance between the viewer looking at the photograph in a gallery to the viewer watching the film in a cinema. And rather than being in a cinema watching a horror film, they instead are presented with a white space: the fast paced, action packed film that bombards the viewer and keeps them glued to their seats becomes a still and introspective image.

The Seascapes series in a sense takes this temporality and timelessness further to a subject that has been ever-present through time, allowing us to see in an instant what exists over aeons. The series presents a growing group of images that really show the same object under differing sets of circumstances. Many, such as time and location are not discernible from the image, solely referenced in the title of each. All signs of 'us,' the viewer, or humankind, are eliminated, as indeed is any sense of a presence of the photographer - there is nowhere for him to be to take the photo. So we are left with a set of variants between the images; weather, time of day and year and currents and are invited to compare and conclude from these the raw state of the sea, or its ideal pose. It's most basic, formative element becomes known: that of a boundary between air and water.

Against this boundary the water is stretched downwards over the bottom half of the photo and the air is drawn to the top. They can only appear as themselves when this boundary, the horizon line, is there. The effect of the horizon in Sugimoto's images is that of the limitless constant that transcends time and place, person and culture. In this sense it's unique.

Historically, the horizon has been ever-present in the history of art as a bit of a problem that necessitated the development of perspective as an attempt to understand pictorially on a 2D plane what exists in 3D.

The rules of perspective mean that multiple points of view will create and need a different image, and so a step to the left could give a whole new situation. Sugimoto's images overcome this relativity of a singular viewpoint without succumbing to a general overview and hint at a larger being. Somehow they seem to be outside of history and as a result outside of reality.

The effect is to make us feel small and insignificant, overawed by each image. Sugimoto was thinking along the same lines... "I have a project to study images back to the most ancient of human memories. When I think back to the most ancient of human memory, I suppose that the simplest matter must have been named first. So I'm proposing the image of water...." He wanted to produce a series of images that would not be afflicted by our cultural viewpoint and that could remain undisturbed by our (meaning each viewer) projections onto it. Whatever baggage we bring to the image becomes sidelined by this sense of other-worldliness, and of seeing something for the first time, which in itself shows how far removed from our origins we, as a culture, have become. The photograph here is very important in allowing the viewer the freedom to actually see the object and every detail of that object, and illustrates Jean Baullilard's comment "photographs are what bring us closest to flies, to their compound eyes and jerky flight." Time becomes followable by a horizontal reading of the images within a gallery.

A mention can be made here to the spiritual and cultural intentions of Sugimoto. A certain amount of 'Zen' and an awareness of Eastern cultures in inherent in all his series in their connection with nature, and a truthfulness associated with the contemplative nature of Buddhism. Sugimoto has noted how he had a 'catching up' to do with regards Eastern philosophyonce he arrived in America, having spent the time in Japan studying Western thinking such as Marxism. This reversal has allowed Sugimoto a certain distance through which his work has space to be as it wishes, not pigeonholed as Eastern or Western. He finds as much exoticism in the American film arenas as in a Japanese Temple.

Regardless of the series, it is hard to look at Sugimoto's work without being confronted by the concept of time in one way or another - through the exposure length of a film in the Cinema series, or the seeming lack of, and in a sense never ending spectacle, in the Seascapes. The importance of the photograph is inherent in all this and through Sugimoto's exploration of the traditional photographic process his 'visions' are realised. His working practice, which is at odds with many contemporary artists, is akin to that of the early photographers, and this is fundamental to his images. The limitations and tendencies of the process control the image in that they inform such factors as image size, which Sugimoto understands and uses in his initial idea and vision.

Action is imminent in all of his images; you expect the film to start, the architecture to come into focus, the waves to run across the image. Challenging the limits of a photograph, things seem permanent yet fragile, in a kind of balance with the artist and each other image.

The images afford the viewer the time to actually study an object in minute detail in a short space of time. In a sense Sugimoto does the work for us, presenting a series of images to study and learn from, giving a sense of seeing something for the first time. It is a collaboration between the object and the process with Sugimoto as a mediator, selector and producer giving the resulting image. He comes as a breath of fresh air in a stuffy art world that generally does not afford such time to look at things closely.



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