Outside of Time: Hiroshi Sugimoto at Japan Society

Installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

In 1582, four recent converts to Christianity were sent from their home in Japan to Europe and the papal court by the Jesuit mission in Japan, as evidence of its success. Called the Tenshō embassy, the four boys met the Pope and saw the great sites of Renaissance Europe before returning home eight years later. Contemporary Tokyo-born, New York-based artist Hiroshi Sugimoto came across the story of the Tenshō embassy while he himself was photographing in Italy. Struck by the parallel paths that he and the boys had taken, despite being divided by some 450 years, Sugimoto began the work that is on view at Japan Society through January 7, 2018. “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” reimagines this early modern moment of cultural exchange between Japan and Europe in an exhibition of large-format silver gelatin prints, augmented by historical works made in Japan in the 16th century.

Installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

One enters the first darkened room of the exhibition with the prospect of a disorienting journey: on facing walls is an image of the ocean, with the horizon a graduated smudge rather than a clear line, and blurred photograph of the leaning tower of Pisa, that familiar tourist icon perpetually off-kilter. The conceit is that the envoys of 1582 could have shared just such a view as Sugimoto, and now the viewer of the exhibition, has.

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That conceit continues in the next room, a large gallery of some-dozen meticulously photographed images of the splendors of Europe that the boys likely saw in exactly such a state, rendered here in large-format silver gelatin. Although some of the images were originally taken to be part of Sugimoto’s ongoing project of photographing theaters, the artist also retraced the steps of the envoys and found ways to create views seemingly out of time. Seemingly any of us might encounter such sights by moonlight, whether 500 years ago or tomorrow, so great is their realism. Although not necessarily solemn, they feel heavy, as if the weight of history and the span of time were somehow compressed in them. Sugimoto describes hearing the voice of the four boys come to him from across time, but to me the ghosts seem to be the buildings themselves. Conspicuously unpeopled and seemingly melting into the night, these buildings and rooms are not quite of this world and make pretense to the eternal.

Installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

In addition to Sugimoto’s work, the exhibition also includes Japanese folding screens of the period, a common trope of which was the depiction of the arrival of European ships. The popular Japanese luxury commodity shed light on cultural context of Japan at time of Tenshō embassy. Jesuit missionaries in Japan commissioned liturgical objects from craftsman, who inevitably adapted the Christian forms to the local materials. Later a European artist arrived to train the local craftsman. The presence of the artist in this dawn of early Modern age and global trade is continued in the work of Sugimoto, who today participates in global circles of trade and intercultural exchange.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Red and White Plum Blossoms Under Moonlight, 2014, installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

Continuing from the historical screens, the work that follows is Sugimoto’s pièce de résistance: Red and White Plum Blossoms Under Moonlight is a photographic print of a famed Japanese screen of the same name from the Edo period done in paint and gold leaf. Muted silver gelatin is pasted on a support to mimic the original screen is form and size. This utterly gorgeous reproduction transforms the original screen into another, replicant art object. Rather than a photograph that tries to capture documentary reality, it evinces a being of its own. If the former is of a specific place and time with a role in the world, Sugimoto’s screen is seemingly unmoored from that, a ghost with a referent to reality but no clear place of its own in this world.

Installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

The final room of the exhibition contains photographs of Ghiberti’s bronze panels in the doors of the baptisty in Florence, a treasure of Renaissance art that portrays scenes from the Old Testament. Rendered in the greyscale of silver gelatin, Sugimoto’s prints darken the gleaming panels. The art object in itself makes pretense to the eternal; it presents itself as a truth that will be self-evident in perpetuity. Ghiberti made his original bronze panels to be beautiful and enduring works of art. Sugimoti’s photographs seem to study that condition even while they inhabit it. On one hand, yes, they are beautifuly made prints so large and convincing that they also seem to be etchings or masterful drawings in graphite. In such a way the clear reproduciblility and documentary nature of the photograph is smudged a bit. On the other hand, this moody artistic portrayal that still manipulates the original bronze into something to be seen afresh is like an attempt to distill the imagery, to translate it into a new genre.

Interestingly, rather than presenting it as documentary photograph, with a display structure of cases with clear bright lighting, the galleries of the Japan Society are darkened, with careful spotlights on each of the works. The room is silent and dark, isolating his photographs in a way that the bronze panels on the doors of the Baptistry in crowded Florence would never have been. Sugimoto’s photographs ensconce themselves in the aura of the art object, and in doing so raise questions about the value and transcendence of art as much as much as the prevailing theme of time that runs through so much of his work.

Marubi Studio: Early Albanian Photography at FOAM in Amsterdam

Imagine my surprise: last month while visiting FOAM, a photography center in Amsterdam, I caught the last days of Dynasty Marubi: A Hundred Years of Albanian Studio Photography–an exhibition based on an archive in northern Albania that I happened to have visited in the summer of 2013. Curated by Kim Knoppers in collaboration with Luçjan Bedeni, Director of the Marubi National Museum of Photography in Shkoder, Albania, this exhibition is one of the first times the images have been shown so far from their hometown and the only time that the original glass negatives have left Albania. The incredible collection of over 150,000 glass plate negatives from three generations of the Marubi studio documents the social life of northern Albania from the decline of the Ottoman Empire, to independence, to the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha.

Self-portrait of Kel Marubi with his Wife in the Studio, no date, Silver gelatin dry process on glass.

Self-portrait of Kel Marubi with his wife in the studio, undated. Silver gelatin dry process on glass

Photography provided a modern form of self-fashioning that citizens of Shkoder took to with seeming abandon, perhaps surprisingly given the partially Muslim population and Islam’s prohibition on figurative images. Kel Marubi uses the photograph above to tell us about his respectable profession (the background replete with the latest technology in cameras), his marriage (his wife prominently sharing the space and mirroring his posture), and his national pride (the traditional clothing identifies them as Albanian). The couple sits in front of the painted backdrop that appears again and again in these images.

Kel Marubi, Catholic veiled women, Shkoder, c. 1890-1918

Consider the strangeness of the portrait of two women pictured above. Perhaps it would be more apt to call it a cipher of a portrait, for the women in their traditional modest dress are fully covered from head to toe, even their faces. If a portrait is usually made to capture the likeness of an individual, here all distinguishing attributes are covered. The doubling of their postures also suggests something uncanny to the modern eye. Curiosity about this lesser known part of the world among Europeans created a secondary market for the images to be reused in postcards, and a portrait like this one gained a second function documenting the traditional costume of the region. The postcard above, stamped with Kel Marubi’s name, reads “Memory of Shkoder” across the bottom.

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Three generations of technically advanced photography took place in Shkoder because Pietro Marubi fled there because of political trouble in Italy. He opened a commercial photography studio in Shkoder in 1856. Pietro originally used the collodion wet plate process that had been invented only five years before. He created commercial portraits for cartes de visites, views of the town and countryside, studies of people, and technically inventive collages. Pietro took on a local youth named Kel  as an apprentice. Kel took the surname Marubi and continued the business, and later Kel’s son Gegë would took over the business from him. On the cutting edge of photography, all three members trained in centers such as Trieste and Paris and were keen to experiment, as evidenced by the early examples of collage, stereoscopic techniques, and, later, infrared photography.

Installation view of early collages, above, and glass plate negatives in the vitrine at FOAM

Although an enormous archive of over 150,000 glass plate negatives remain, almost no original prints do–they were all sold, either to the commissioner or to a newspaper (e.g. The London Illustrated News and L’Illustration) or as a postcard. If Pietro Marubi began taking photographs in and around Shkoder during the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, which ended in 1912, first Kel and later Gegë Marubi continued his legacy into the Communist period beginning in 1946. Gegë eventually donated the archives to the state and worked on their preservation until the end of his life. The world changed dramatically during this time, but the photographs attest to continuity as well as rupture; throughout one sees the traditional regional clothing, rocky landscapes, and painted backdrops that accommodated all kinds of sitters.

Sociability & Surveillance Across Photography at the New York Public Library


The exhibition “Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing” pulls out an impressive fraction of the New York Public Library’s collection of almost five million (!) photographs. Predicated on the notion that photography “has always been social,” the exhibition justifies itself from the second you walk in the door.


As you enter the room, you see yourself in a tilted mirror hanging from the ceiling and become aware of the text on the floor in front of you, arranged to be read as a caption for the inevitable selfie you take from this vantage point. (See more willing participants in self-surveillance here.) This gimmick effectively highlights the idea of surveillance–as do the photographs of Google street views by Doug Rickard on view–but also our social willingness to implicate ourselves: to report on our own movements and put ourselves in the public eye.


Taking a long view of photography as a social element in culture, the exhibition has a fantastic display of international carte de visite among its many thematic vitrines. These small portraits, popularized in the 1850s, became a fashionable form of calling card, intended to left at the host’s home by a visitor. The black-and-white scenes are not always straightforward portraits; they are full of character and sometimes feature people posing together, small children, or people in costume. The back of the card is marked by the photography studio that produced it.

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A popular pastime in the latter half of the 19th c. was viewing twinned images, as seen below, through a stereoscope. A stereoscope is a viewing device that holds the images just enough removed from your face that your eyes naturally blend the two side-by-side images to create the illusion of depth. Although this might seem like a solitary pursuit, it was common for families and visitors to gather together to view stereoscopic images. Stereoscopic cards might portray landscapes, street scenes, or people, and they were often sold in themed sets.


While there is a slew of notable images on view–iconic WPA photos, works by Ansel Adams, more recent projects like Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip–the art history nerd in me was most excited to see images from the origin of photography, when people were still discovering how to make images from light. One of the first vitrines in the exhibition contains an example of the beautifully deep blue cyanotypes that Anna Atkins created of algae and other plants in the early 1840s (the image below is representative of this body of work). Atkins used a new technique to create these images in order to serve a scientific purpose: as botanical specimens.


Next to her cyanotype lies an original bound volume of “The Pencil of Nature.” William Henry Fox Talbot published this book of photography in 1844-6, featuring scenes of china cabinets that showed how photography could be used to take inventory as well as studies of cottage doorways with a carefully askew broom. With images like the latter, Talbot made the case that photography was an art as much as a science. So unfamiliar was the public with photography, Talbot felt the need to explain to the reader that these images were “photogenic drawings” made by light rather than the human hand–thus the title.


The debate over photography as art or science has continued, as the topographical studies of the American West, ethnographic documentation, and Google street views in this exhibition attest. Often today we look back at such images through an aesthetic lens: seeing artistic expression rather than documentary veracity. People have approached photography with many attitudes and purposes in the medium’s relatively short history, and I couldn’t help feeling that “The Public Eye”‘s dense, loosely organized viewing experience reflects that diversity and messiness rather than attempting to streamline it into a more coherent exhibition.

This treasure trove of seminal photographs is on view at the iconic Schwarzman Building on 42nd street through January 3, 2016, so plenty of time to visit and revisit. Check online for the schedule of free docent-led tours.