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Hiroshi Sugimoto Exhibition (Monday, 22 August 2011)

There is a fascinating exhibition at the Edinburgh Gallery of Modern Art (as part of the Edinburgh Festival), till Sunday 25 September. In effect this is two exhibitions in one as is suggested by the title Lightning Fields and Photogenic Drawings. The Lightening Fields are images made by discharging static electricity directly onto negatives, controlled by using a conducting rod. I am not usually a fan of large prints but these ones (around 5x6 feet) fully justify their size. There are two rooms of these with the images in the first room showing a large discharge spine with smaller and smaller branches leading off. The ones in the second room have effects that are either more spread out (like strange small animals) or consist of very delicate feather or fur like striations with accents of frond like marks. The photographs are suggestive of a variety of natural phenomena, offering many subtleties. It is interesting that a master of tonality (see his sea pictures) has produced such wonderful work which consists essentially of pure black and pure white.

The Photogenic Drawings are prints made by Sugimoto from enlarged versions of original Fox Talbot negatives, dating from the late 1830s to the early 1840s. The prints are around 2.5x3.5 feet and are toned in various ways (from cyan to red); Sugimoto refers to them as gelatin silver. This is not just a sterile exercise in photographic archaeology, the results are mesmerising. They range from very sharp contacts of ferns and other plants to the Rembrandt like (Fox Talbot’s description) soft effects for portraits and architectural studies. They all offer a variety of experience as one approaches them from a distance, something that looks like a silhouette at first turns out to have more detail. By contrast the portraits convey expression very well from a certain distance while close up there is no detail. In these days of digital bland perfection these are a very convincing case for the opposite (but then I must admit that in general I try to emulate the photographers of old and avoid excessive detail even on 10x8). The prints display a wonderful variety of texture as well, due to the paper negatives used; well worth close study. Again there are two rooms of these but take care to look also at the two pictures outside the exhibition rooms (the first one is in the alcove to your right as you go up the stairs to the entrance and the second one in the alcove on the opposite side as you leave the main exhibition).

To sum up, this is a thought provoking and highly enjoyable exhibition. On my second visit I payed some attention to comments made by others to their friends or partners, all of them expressing a sense of wonder. If you can find it, there is a superb book by Sugimoto called Nature of Light published by Izu Photo Museum (which he designed). The gallery had some copies but at quite a mark up. I was lucky enough to get a copy from Neil McIlwraith owner of the excellent Beyond Words.