Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine

Steve Russell


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Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX
11 October 2023 – 7 January 2024

Leaving the polychromatic Southbank and entering through the doors of the Hayward Gallery I was gently propelled into Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Time Machine. This retrospective exhibition covers a career that spans five decades. The monochrome uniformity of the gallery and the beautifully framed pieces are vastly complimentary and usher you into an other-worldly experience. The exhibition begins with his first photographs made in  New York in the 1970s. Sugimoto uses a large format camera and black and white film, deploying very long exposures.  

In his ‘Theaters’ series he matched the exposure to the length of the film that was about to be shown. The compressed images radiate off the walls. The beautifully floating dust frozen in time. Such is the intensity of these images they appear to be lit by light boxes. They are further heightened by the wonderful reflections in the polished floor.  

In ‘Earliest Human Relatives’, 1994, from the ‘Dioramas’ series, two hominid figures are strolling across a landscape, one stares back at us. Sugimoto has somehow projected their world as realised by the diorama maker at the American Museum of Natural History, back to us as a snapshot of reality. It would be interesting to hear the reactions of the original builders and model makers of the dioramas and waxworks.  

Then the ‘Seascapes’. These seemingly simple, flat deceptive pieces draw you in, the intense compression of the layers make very contemplative pieces. ‘Waxworks’, is a gallery full of famous faces photographed by Sugimoto at Madame Tussauds waxworks, including Fidel Castro and Princess Diana, again black and white, they stare across at each other. There is an element of humourous horror, theatricality, celebrity culture and a celebration of what purports to be real, the conundrum increased by their Sugimoto rendition, they feel surprisingly animated.

No camera was used in creating the ‘Lightning’ series of images. Sugimoto uses a Van de Graaf Generator to send electrical currents across unexposed film resting on top of a grounded metal plate. The resulting images are dynamic. Then on into ‘Architecture’, blurred photographs, Including the Eiffel Tower and The Twin Towers irresistibly draw you into each image with their possibly apocalyptic blurring. 

‘Sea of Buddha’, a cool, calm and yet slightly foreboding monochrome space. You are surrounded by Sugimoto’s 1000 Buddhas, a series of photographs based on wooden figures in a 12th-century temple in Kyoto. 

And finally, you enter a gallery full of intense colour photographs. ‘Opticks’, is a series produced using a Polaroid camera, following Newton’s Optics Treatise. The contrast moving from the monochrome world is stark. After a few moments of adjustment, you realise Sugimoto’s sensibilities and skills are totally at play here too, he has worked his magic with colour. 

Sugimoto creates clever and shrewd images that have a familiarity to us, each composition so controlled and realised. We’re caught in a long moment of time, allowing you to enter its own dimension, slightly or completely off-kilter to the one you are in; a moving, philosophical and meditative experience.

Intimacy Hiroshi Sugimoto Time Machine Steve Russell Sugimoto Lightning
Intimacy Hiroshi Sugimoto Time Machine Steve Russell Sugimoto Theatre

Steve Russell

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Steve Russell, artist. Dealing with issues of self, identity and symbols through the medium of paint, ephemera and other drawing materials. My practice is a figurative style that marries diverse elements into an instantly recognizable, idiosyncratic idiom that is at times touching, dramatic and visceral. Using line and dramatically visceral expressive colour, I produce images that manage to be optimistic and intriguing, even in seemingly mundane or problematic contexts.


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