The instant my eyes alight on the first of Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto’s large and dramatically stark black and white photos, I think of an artery, branching into arterioles and finally fanning out into feathery capillaries.
I look at another and see the root of a delicate plant, branching into finer and finer root hairs. The next photo could be a river basin with the main waterway flanked by a network of tributaries.
But these photos are not of animal, plant, geographical feature, or in fact anything organic at all. The images, currently on display in at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, are the results of electrical discharge.
Sugimoto had often been irritated by static electricity leaving it’s tell tale flashes across his photographic work, but in the Lightning Fields series Sugimoto decided to “make an ally of my nemesis” by studying the phenomenon and making natural forces work for his art.
Initially, Sugimoto experimented with various devices originally used by William Henry Fox Talbot, a pioneer in photography, as well as scientist and inventor, who conducted research with Michael Faraday on static electricity and electrical conduction. Eventually though, the artist decided to use a Van de Graaff generator – like those you often see people in science museums touching to make their hair stick out wildly – to create his lightning images. In the dark room, he charges the generator until the hairs on his arms stand on end and then releases 400,000 volts on to film on top of a metal plate, thus creating the dramatically compelling images.
In the next room at the gallery is a second series of photos also by Sugimoto, but these have more the appearance of paintings. They are images he created from original negatives produced by Fox Talbot around 160 years ago. Fox Talbot developed a way of producing what he called “photogenic drawings” using light sensitive paper to produce a negative. The method preceded the development of the daguerreotype, the commercial photographic process.
Sugimoto has worked directly with these original negatives to reproduce some of the earliest photographed images, and the results on display as part of his Photogenic Drawings exhibit are haunting and other worldly. In one, two ladies are chatting. What were they talking about back in 1842? In another, taken that same year, a man is in deep contemplation. The grainy, ghostly quality of the photographs means that you must literally peer back in time.
In a second room of electricity photographs, I find images that are even more surprising – summoning notions of strange creatures living deep in the ocean with their little personal light sources. I get a thrill from the feeling that the raw electrical energy has taken on the appearance of life.
Sugimoto seems to agree, as he himself reflected: “Was I trying to make artworks or to reproduce primordial life forms? Whichever, both art and science sprang from observing the natural world.”