OF ALL OF HIROSHI SUGIMOTO'S photographs, some 120 of which were recently on view in a retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, I like best the blankest and emptiest of them, the seascapes and the movie screens. Paradoxically, these are also the least photographic of his photographs, at least as I understand the photographic: as a field of indexically registered, automatic detail, which tends toward a chaos principle of frozen momentariness and punctal oddity. There is none of that anywhere in Sugimoto's work, but least of all in these flat seas and glowing white screens, which do their utmost either to empty the photographic field of all detail or to consign it to their dark peripheries. Strange that I should like these, for I have always had great affection for the chaotic photograph and its uncanny detail.
Writing about film, Andre Bazin once claimed that the photograph represented the modern epitome of what he called the "mummy complex" of Western mimesis: the desire to preserve life unchanged, forever. That mummy complex is perfectly rendered in Sugimoto's doubly embalmed photographs of historical waxworks from Madame Tussauds and of taxidermic animals from the American Museum of Natural History's wonderful old parade of dioramas. The best of these are a waxily sweating Henry VIII and a pair of manatees behind glass. What is compelling about such images is precisely their detail. But their detail is not punctal, and never uncanny, for what these photographs demonstrate with such technical virtuosity is the deadness of their subjects, the morbidity of the impulse to preserve, and the necrophilia of the mummy complex.
These photographs do not freeze the living moment or capture life; like mummies, they are monuments to the already dead and to the eternity of death. Manatee, 1999, is a beautiful photograph, but the most living thing in it is the light that streams through glass and embalmed water onto silver emulsion. The manatees it depicts may be "real," as Sugimoto asserts, but the reality they materialize is not that of life, for they appear never to have been alive in the first place. Theirs is not the "that-has-been" of past livingness or the future anteriority of death about which Barthes wrote so poignantly. Theirs is rather the evermore of the always-was, the eternal presentness of the tomb that is shared by painted portraits and stone sculptures alike. The materiality of Sugimoto's photographs is very evidently photographic, yet in the matter of time, they have no specificity of medium.
Were it not for the ponderousness of some of Sugimoto's quoted remarks and the persistent ambitiousness of his large-scale concepts, I would take the elegant yet unpleasant stillness of his work as a canny meditation on the mortuary flip side of the photograph's famous freezing of time. But the Zen conceit of his "Sea of Buddha" series, 1995, the high-modernist yen of his out-of-focus architectural photographs, and the neo-Man Rayism of his mathematical objects suggest otherwise: that this is a photographer who wants monumentality and genius for his photography. …