ARTICLE: The Blank Screens of Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto's photographs of movie palaces and drive-in theatres pay homage to the role played by the cinema in the creation of a modern American myth. The concept of a place signifying a bygone era is central to these images. Sugimoto's work also investigates the notion of how time is captured on film. The artist simultaneously compresses time in moving imagery and enlarges it in still photography. Consequently, the movies, as a place and as a light show, become for Sugimoto a primary vehicle for a questioning of boundaries. The movie palaces and drive-ins frame the photographs themselves, while encapsulating an evocative sense of locale. Likewise, the photographs test the limitations of time within the context of two dimensional representations. 

Sugimoto, who was born in Tokyo in 1948 and now resides in New York, initiated the movie palace series in the late 1970's, photographing theatres in the Northeast and Midwest United States from 1978 to 1980. In 1992 he broadened his approach to include depictions of drive-in theatres and in 1993 he returned to the subject of the classic indoor showpalaces, photographing the cinemas on the West Coast. Photographic essays on the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a series of seascapes occupied the intervening years. All of Sugimoto's photographs have been done as 20x24 inch gelatin silver prints.

The movie palace photos were made by placing an 8x10 camera at farthest reach from the screen. Frequently, Sugimoto positions himself in the balcony of the theatre. This imperious placement affords Sugimoto, and the viewer, full regard of the theatre, allowing him to take in the particulars of its architecture. The relationship of the viewer to the screen is inverted in the drive-in images; in these pictures the screen looms above the viewer.

Unlike the cineplexes of today, which seem little more than carpeted concrete boxes, the movie palaces built in the United States during the 1920's and '30's were ornate, richly decorated structures. Hollywood was entering its heyday. The "star system" was in place, soon to be followed by the attendant propaganda machinery of the fan letter and the fan magazine. The studios based in burgeoning Los Angeles had emerged as the dominant force in the world film industry. In 1927, "The Jazz Singer" heralded the advent of the talkies. Hollywood was becoming America's new religion, and the movie theatres built during this period were meant to serve as its cathedrals. Like the original baroque and rococo palaces and churches on which they were modelled, these theatres were meant to overawe the audience and transport them away from the quotidian. 

Seen from the perspective of Sugimoto's camera, set at a literal and symbolic distance from the screen, these movie palaces become icons of nostalgia. The fantasy architecture speaks of an era of hopeful optimism which, in retrospect, seems disquieting for its unfulfilled promise. As the critic Vince Aletti has suggested, there is a sort of "overheated imagination" at work in these palaces which couldn't be sustained. [1] 

The photographs of the drive-in theatres have a similar haunted feel to them. The first drive-in theatre was opened in 1933; by 1958, there were more than 4000 drive-in screens in the U.S. [2] The drive-in as a cultural form managed to combine three of America's greatest inventions: film, cars and fast food. [3] Sugimoto's photographs, however, remind us that the drive-ins, like the movie palaces, are dinosaurs. Today, only 837 drive-in screens remain in use. [4] The carefully restored movie palaces and still active drive-ins are palimpsests. In their time, they were a vibrant, active part of contemporary culture. Today, they are part of a retrograde reaction to a society that is frequently perceived as being tawdry and lacking in glamour. Sugimoto's photographs are, to a degree, both informed by that reaction, and a commentary on it. 

In these darkened theatres, Sugimoto lights his images by opening the shutter of the camera and exposing the film for the duration of the screening of a feature movie. The result shows a blank screen, glowing ethereally in the center of the photographic composition. The light projected from the screen illuminates the interior of the theatre, making discernable the architectural details that would normally not be accessible to a theatre-goer seated in the darkened room. 

The white screens stand as a symbol of the technologically innovative role the cinema once played in American cultural history. The screens seem to serve as a metaphorical beacon, calling on the viewer to acknowledge the significance these theatres held in their time for their audiences. There is also something sad and poignant in their message. The movie palaces and drive-ins were built as communal gathering places. In their time, they would have played to packed houses. Yet, in the light of the screens, the theatres are revealed to be empty. The void on the screens is complemented by the void in the theatres. 

It can be argued that painting is defined by the artist's efforts to fill the canvas, to create something where previously a void existed. Conversely, in photography, the image is defined by the parameters of the lens. The camera frames an object. Where painting moves outward from within, photography moves in from it's outer boundaries. Sugimoto's images are effective exemplars of this phenomenon. The theatres and drive-ins, framed by the camera, have a finite sense of space. The composition of these photographs, strongly anchored by the screens in their center, pulls the viewer in. The screens of the drive-in theatres act as even more powerful magnets. Although they are surrounded by the infinite night sky, their draw is inescapable. At the same time, because the screens are devoid of any visual information, the eye returns to the space contained within the camera's frame. By carefully constructing the composition of these images, Sugimoto's command of spatial relationships between the screen at the center and the surrounding architecture determines the path the viewer's eye will travel -first in, and subsequently, back outward. 

In discussing his own work, David Hockney once posed the question "When is the present? When did the past end and the present occur, and when does the future start? ... Ordinary photography has one way of seeing only, which is fixed, as if there is a kind of objective reality, which simply cannot be. Picasso ... knew that every time you look there's something different. There is so much there, but we're not seeing it, that's the problem." [5] Hockney's artistic response to his question is most clearly seen in his "joiner" photographs: images in which prints are collaged together to create a piece which is both the sum of its parts, and a series of individual photographs. These assemblages represent Hockney's conviction, informed equally by his interest in Japanese scrolls and Cubist painting, that a means for presenting a sense of time in photography can be achieved by depicting different perspectives within the same piece. 

It is clear that Hiroshi Sugimoto shares Hockney's fascination with presenting the element of time within a photograph. However, Sugimoto imparts his information about the passage of time in photography within the single vehicle of the blank white screens. For Sugimoto, time is both condensed and enlarged on the screen. Bringing the feature film, a series of thousands of individual frames, to a sole whited out image, is an act of redaction. 

A photograph is commonly assumed to be a snap shot. Henri Cartier-Bresson's concept of capturing the "decisive moment" on film is the apotheosis of this understanding. Sugimoto seems to bring a different sense of time in photography to his images. The glow on the white screens at the center of his work is an accumulated radiance, resulting from the lengthy exposure of the film over a prolonged period of time. While this harkens back to the earliest days of photography, when images required longer exposures to register on the glass plates or treated papers that were used at the time, it also constitutes a post-modern usage of the medium, in which the photograph carries an expanded amount of information. Sugimoto's photos are like the MTV videos that flash images at the viewer in fractions of a second, only taken to an extreme. We know the information is there. We just can't decipher it. 

Sugimoto's seemingly straightforward documentary photographs actually depict a dense and complex imagery. They contain layer upon layer of meaning. In his view, the movie palace and drive-in theatre are evocative symbols of the glory days of the silver screen. In the same instance, the white screens demonstrate the potential of a still photograph to represent an expression of time. If these images have a certain poignant quietude about them, it is because they speak so eloquently about the passage of time. 

From Motion Picture, 1995

1. Aletti, Vince, "Hiroshi Sugimoto," VILLAGE VOICE: New York, January 25, 1994. 
2. Grimes, William, "Still showing life in the heart of America, Drive-In Theaters," THE NEW YORK TIMES: New York, Tuesday, July 19, 1994.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Joyce, Paul, HOCKNEY ON PHOTOGRAPHY: CONVERSATIONS WITH PAUL JOYCE, Jonathan Cape: London, 1988, p. 31.