Hunting down Hiroshi Sugimoto proves difficult. One minute, the Japanese photographer is in Tel Aviv for his first major solo exhibition. A few days later, he’s in Nagasaki for another show, before travelling back home to his studio in New York. Last spring, Sugimoto turned 70. There’s a sense that he’s on the next wave of his career – one that will affirm his reputation as a worldly and innovative artist – as demonstrated by his recent exhibition at Versailles, Surface of Revolution, a forthcoming Opéra national de Paris ballet project with the choreographer Alessio Silvestrin, and the ongoing success of his Odawara Art Foundation, a charitable non-profit organisation that he established “with the aim of conveying the essence of Japanese culture to a wider audience”, he says.
In October 2017, after an intense decade of “planning, preparation and construction”, Sugimoto’s foundation opened the Enoura Observatory, a “multidisciplinary arts facility” that in its construction married modern building techniques with historic Japanese methods, and includes a teahouse and two stages for classical drama (Noh). It has since welcomed more than 25,000 visitors. “People appreciate how the project looks back at the past and forward at the same time,” Sugimoto says. “I am an anachronist, not an anarchist.”
Hailed as one of the great masters of contemporary photography, Sugimoto’s meditative photographs, featuring subjects from historical figures to seascapes, illuminate the permanent collections of prominent museums such as the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Centre Pompidou and the Tate Modern. In person, Sugimoto’s manner is playful – but don’t be fooled, he is both confident and sage-like about his craft. “I am Jekyll and Hyde,” he likes to tease.
He is inspired by the Old Masters; particularly Rembrandt, who is his favourite. “I like the quality of his light and the floating in darkness,” Sugimoto says. He describes his own work as “very textured and layered” due to the use of a 19th-century box camera. “People think more modern is good, but it’s not,” he insists. “When digital photography will take better pictures than I do, I’ll switch cameras. But it won’t.”
Sugimoto’s fixation with the past fuelled his Versailles exhibition. Focusing on the 1789 revolution seems particularly apt in today’s climate, and Sugimoto felt confronting it was unavoidable. “I think revolution is part of the French people’s nature,” he says. “Even if that particular revolution did not take place, another one would have come along.”
The 11th contemporary artist to show at Versailles – previous honourees include Takashi Murakami and Anish Kapoor – Sugimoto was the first to choose the Trianon estate, a smaller château on the grounds of the main palace, as the site for his works. Intimate in style, Trianon became notorious as Queen Marie-Antoinette’s playground. It suits Sugimoto’s work, which includes a glass teahouse originally designed for the Venice Biennale in 2014, a long, narrow stainless steel sculpture called Surface of Revolution, and black-and-white portraits of both Napoleon and Louis XVI. Discovering a wax bust of Louis XVI within the halls of the palace was Sugimoto’s most memorable moment of the project. “An unexpected surprise,” he says, “I decided to photograph it in an attempt to bring it back to life.”
And yet, Sugimoto’s most ambitious project is still his own Enoura Observatory. An hour outside of Tokyo, it is nestled in Odawara, a city on the Eastern coast of Japan that backs onto the Hakone mountains and overlooks Sagami Bay. The sea view is one of Sugimoto’s “earliest childhood” memories, seen from a train going along the old Tōkaidō line from Atami to Odawara. “When the train came out of the twin tunnels, there was the vast Pacific Ocean… that snapped my eyes wide open,” he recalls. “In that moment I awoke to the fact that I was me, and that I was here on earth.”
Sugimoto chose to build the observatory in a rambling citrus grove. Not for the faint of heart, T Magazine’s Bianca Bosker – one of the earliest visitors – described the site as feeling “precariously perched on the steep sides of the mountains, as if its buildings were impervious to the laws of gravity”. However, in spite of “the seeming weightlessness of the structures”, she recalled that “virtually every surface and all the ornamentation has been created from stones in a dizzying array of shades and textures”.
The observatory also draws attention to “the art of living in harmony with nature” that Sugimoto describes as a unique characteristic of Japanese culture. The artist achieves this by aligning his structures, such as Winter Solstice Light-Worship Tunnel / Light Well, with the sun’s movement. On the morning of the winter solstice, the sun rises above Sagami Bay and thrusts its light through the 70-metre tunnel to illuminate a large stone at the other end. His goal, Sugimoto says, is to “connect people, visually and mentally, to the oldest of human memories”.
There will also be performances of varying kinds throughout the year. “I have been working in the performing arts for more than 15 years now,” Sugimoto says. “But this may be news to many people.” And despite his obsession with the past, the fact that the photographer collects pre-historic fossils – also on display at the observatory – may too come as a surprise.
“What we can do is return to the wellspring of human consciousness, explore its sources, and chart the course it has followed thus far,” he says. With his observatory, Versailles show and foundation, Sugimoto continues to ask what art about the past can express in today’s world.
Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni is a writer based in Paris.