A Brief History of Time; the Arts Hiroshi Sugimoto's New Exhibition Shows How a Photograph Can Capture More Than Just an Instant

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Byline: ANDREW RENTON

SLOWLY, quietly, Hiroshi Sugimoto has become one of the world's most sought after photographers. The acclaim is surprising because Sugimoto, now 55, employs none of the saturation gloss that a younger generation has made fashionable, such as the computerised trickery of Andreas Gursky or the fictionalised scenarios of Gregory Crewdson. He is more a conventional photographer, lugging an ancient handmade camera from one landscape to the next.

His consistent, methodical approach derives from his studies in the Seventies in conceptually driven Los Angeles. At a time when many artists pass the buck when it comes to printing the picture, he is a master of hand-printed images. There are no sweeping gestures in Sugimoto, rather a glacial exploration of subtle tonal shifts within the frame. In an age of the quick digital snap, Sugimoto's work, opening tomorrow at the Serpentine, offers the contemporary viewer something rarely seen in the modern world: slowness.

The photograph has always offered to arrest the world in a single, false moment; the photograph makes the world impossibly still. We are so accustomed to seeing and taking photographs that we rarely pause to contemplate the strangeness of the medium.

For 150 years the photograph has claimed to be an "accurate" medium, a way of translating the world's multidimensionality into an instantaneous surface image. But that instant is also a chemical process, marking material change in the surface of the negative, plate or print.

Something happens in the photograph, something quite material, that we choose to ignore in order to accept its ability to "record" information.

Sugimoto's most famous images - featureless seascapes taken all over the world - should resemble every cliche perpetuated by a happy snapper at the beach. But he doesn't want to capture the moment, choosing to make an image that extends time. In the final prints, the results are formally consistent - the horizon is more or less all that is discernible, dividing the sea from the sky in a range of super-subtle grey tones.

(Hardcore Sugimoto collectors love the almost impenetrable images where the horizon is barely discernible in the blacks of the print.) To read a Sugimoto photograph is to understand the world in terms of light and dark.

The white screens of his theatre studies are bleached and luminescent because the lens has been open to the screen for an hour.

Sugimoto won't be rushed. When making a still inside a theatre, for example, Sugimoto only uses the light from the movie projection, which brings out crisp details of the theatre's decor, but the movie is lost.

It goes at quite a different pace from Sugimoto.

The difficulty with photography, for the viewer, is that it fails to imitate the processes of painting that are visible on every canvas, good or bad. That process is what makes the painting understandable as art; the defining quality of the painting is its absorption of time and effort into its surface. It takes time to do. It takes time to see. When you look at a painting, you begin to read it as an accumulation of shape and colour on the canvas. It is hardly a conscious thing, but as you pass time in front of a painting, the slowness of process (of even the most slapdash daub) finds a parallel in the viewer's observation of it.

Sugimoto brings this to the photograph. Watch next week how people move through a Sugimoto exhibition.

They peer right into image, trying to get inside the rich monochrome shades, abstracting the image from its source, losing sight of the bigger picture. …