The topsy-turvy world of Hiroshi Sugimoto

The Japanese photographer combines exquisite craft with an unexpected set of subjects to create works where the real seems fake, and the fake real

With our current obsession with AI opening up a new set of questions about what is ‘real’ in photography, a survey exhibition of 50 years of the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto at the Hayward Gallery in London appears timely.

Sugimoto employs analogue techniques to make his large-scale works, often using a large-format wooden camera and practices from 19th century photography, and he examines existential questions of time, perception and memory that have intrigued and troubled humans throughout history. Yet his images are also starkly contemporary, and surprisingly playful, as he turns tacky museum displays into poignant portraits and obscure mathematical teaching aids into sensual sculptures.

The earliest works here, from the mid-70s, set out a pattern of playing with reality that Sugimoto has continued since. After moving to New York, he visited the American Museum of Natural History which had a number of animal dioramas on display. “I made a curious discovery,” he writes on his website, “the stuffed animals positioned before painted backdrops looked utterly fake, yet by taking a quick peek with one eye closed, all perspective vanished, and suddenly they looked very real. I had found a way to see the world as a camera does. However fake the subject, once photographed, it’s as good as real.”

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Polar Bear, 1976
Polar Bear, 1976. All images courtesy Hiroshi Sugimoto
Conceptual Forms 0003, Dini’s surface_ a surface of constant negative curvature obtained by twisting a pseudosphere, 2004

The diorama works at the Hayward include portraits of a polar bear and a group of vultures. Shot in Sugimoto’s signature style of rich black and white, the creatures appear ancient and slightly uncanny. Initially striking you as real, the more time you spend with them, the more off kilter they appear.

He achieves a similar effect with his set of portraits of waxworks from Madame Tussauds in London, which feature an incongruous selection of figures including Henry VIII, Oscar Wilde, and Princess Diana. Photographed against a black backdrop with studio lighting and removed from their displays, the waxworks become remarkably lifelike and compelling. He is less successful in another series of images of murderers and psychopaths from the museum though – these are left in their staged settings, which rather gives the game away.

Diana, Princess of Wales, 1999
Oscar Wilde, 1999

The exhibition also includes a number of artworks in Sugimoto’s ongoing Seascapes series. He began this series in 1980, but it taps into a lifelong interest in the sea and its ancient links to humankind. “My first personal memory is a seascape,” he says. “The sea has changed so much less than the land, so when human beings first gained consciousness, moving from an animal to a human state, the seascape might have made a strong impression on their minds. I can share that vision. I can compare my own memory with the first vision of the world.”

Photographed so that the images are divided evenly between sea and sky and without any other elements to tie them to a specific time or place, the scenes become abstract and eerie. With no other true elements of nature appearing in Sugimoto’s work here – all animals and humans are stuffed or made of wax – these images too become unreal.

Bay of Sagami, Atami, 1997
UA Playhouse, New York, 1978

This otherworldly quality is also present in Sugimoto’s Theaters series of photographs, which capture the entirety of a movie in one frame, shot on a large-format camera with the shutter set wide open throughout. The resulting works document the ornate settings of old cinemas, empty of an audience, with the screen a blinding, heavenly light in the centre, beckoning you towards it.

Hiroshi Sugimoto is at the Hayward Gallery in London until January 7;