Keeping his camera’s lens open for the duration of movies, or setting his camera on long exposures before various seas and oceans, photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto created two series of images that empty and fill the visual field with uncanny quietness. The stillness of the images hold a volatile core of motion, as if the images were created to give form to Roland Barthes’ description of a photograph finding in the viewer a still, calm, erotic and lacerating place. I saw two images from the movie theater series this June in Washington DC (The Memory of Time) during the calm of summer, and returned to the images not in a museum but in my classroom this winter, the last class day of the worst semester I’ve ever experienced. The images opened for me very differently before and after this semester. The uncanny hollow light in Sugimoto’s movie theater photographs this summer bothered me. I did not like to look at this commentary on what we see when we watch a movie—light, darkness, light, a blur that manifests ultimately as seeing nothing at all—the visual commentary of the movie theater series seemed almost too sharp, too close to saying that not only as we watch movies but also as we live there is this hollow core of motion that manifests as nothing, or nothing but a gaping shudder of light.
And yet this winter when I returned to the movie theater and ocean series of photographs they transfixed me. Here is the stillness of the ocean that is made of incessant movement; here is the stillness of moving picture films, built of incessant, meaningless movement. It put me in mind of the stillness in my grandparents’ small town in winter in Georgia, the cheap restaurant where they would take us out to eat for a treat after the disappointments of Christmas, seemingly always in a cold occlusive rain, the movement of rain making everything still and pale, my grandfather’s hands still shaking years after he saw battle. The stillness in the center of what you do not want to avow but what creates you. This trauma of movement, the unending movement of time, Sugimoto fixes in the ocean and movie theater photograph series that for me form one coherent series, a darkly patient meditation on time.
The images for which I lacked the patience in summer’s long days and transpicuous light, in winter’s bitterness were the very images that saved my sense of what patience is: waiting and suffering, taking the time to see the nothingness in the center of all images, the brilliant hollow horizon set against all the details of theaters and shores, life details in crisp outline, that are in the end only the image’s edge. Having the patience to hold still at an ocean’s graphite horizon, so still you see the detail of corrugated water, the fold of horizon, or no detail, only the vista of your own watching, itself the first and last detail. That is surely what Sugimoto means when he says that these images “explode behind his eyes,” he means that they open the interior presence of what is seen, its duration. The images of theaters and oceans are one series, for me, because they turn on the same premise of constant movement that is revealed to be stillness: over time, so many repeated movements add up to stillness. In the summer that idea did not charm me, but in winter I see the truth of it.
December 31, 2015