"People used to feel the light and how the light affected the surface of the object. The sky, lights from the window are constantly changing every second, every minute...You had to develop your own sense of the best balance of F-stop and shutter speed." 1

Hiroshi Sugimoto's working space in New York is similar to many traditional artists' studios: by facing north, direct sunlight is avoided, and the light quality is stabilized. Some of Sugimoto's photographs are taken here, but most are shot in other locations.

The artist uses a 19th century-style, large-format camera. According to his subject matter, he uses different lengths of exposure: the Joe series was made with short exposure, whereas his theater series was taken for the full length of each film's projection. Taken in natural history museums, his diorama series has an exposure anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes. His long exposure photographs can only be done with the help of a tripod (in handheld photography, typical exposures must be faster than 1/60 of a second).

The blurring effect in Sugimoto's Joe series originates from his unconventional use of "infinity," which refers to the farthest reaches of the background. While the furthest a traditional lens can focus is infinity, his large format camera can be forced to double the "infinity-effect," which results in the blurring of the photograph.

Sugimoto considers himself a craftsman in the tradition of early photography:

"People used to feel the light and how the light affected the surface of the object. The sky, lights from the window are constantly changing every second, every minute. So you really had to guess what was going to happen. You had to develop your own sense of the best balance of F-stop and shutter speed. I trained myself very well spending thirty years doing this. So the machine cannot measure some things, very intimate factors. What the early photographer gained from the study of nature, now people tend to rely on the computer or machines for. That's not good enough. You need something more than that." 1

For his work, the artist prefers traditional fiber-based gelatin-silver prints, a technique developed in the 1870s, which had become the most popular means of making black and white prints from negatives until the recent introduction of digital photography. The traditional prints involve paper coated with a layer of gelatin which contains light sensitive silver salts. Whereas many professional photographers prefer to have their prints developed in a lab, Sugimoto follows in the footsteps of the pioneers of photography and is very much involved in the craft of hand-developing his prints.

There are two main phases of developing black and white photography:

  • The negative is projected and enlarged onto the gelatin-silver coated photo paper. The 8 x 10 sheet film must be processed in absolute darkness.
  • The prints are hand-processed in trays of chemicals and washed extensively to ensure their archival nature. "Archival" is a technical qualification regarding the life-span of a developed photograph. For fiber-based gelatin-silver prints, the surface is estimated to remain unchanged for at least 100 years

Sugimoto generally produces limited editions. In the case of his large-scale photographs, five copies are usually made, while in the smaller prints, twenty five copies are produced. The large formats are signed and labeled on the back, whereas the small ones are embossed and signed on the mount.

So far it has been exceptional that Sugimoto has explored color photography; however, the current series he is working on, which falls into this category, is entitled Colors of Shadow.

Hiroshi Sugimoto Photographs of JOE.  May 12 - October 14, 2006
Hiroshi Sugimoto Biography Photographic Technique Docent Material