Hiroshi Sugimoto | the Zen Master of Photography

Sasha Frost

When Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs a series of seascapes, theaters, forests, modernist architecture and waxwork dolls, he does so in a way that transforms his subjects into something else entirely. The multidisciplinary Japanese artist has been artistically creating for four decades, exploring the nature of time, reality and the camera’s power to manipulate perception. Here we look at four of his most captivating series: Dioramas, Lightning Fields, Pine Trees and Theaters.

Birds of the Alps, 2012 I
Hiroshi Sugimoto

Photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto has been making waves in the art world since the 1970s. Over time, his craft evolved and expanded into territories beyond those of pure photography. Today, he is credited as a director, a writer, an essayist, a sculptor, a performance artist and an architect. Sugimoto was born and raised in Tokyo, where he started exploring photography from a young age and went on to complete a degree in politics and sociology. He later moved to Los Angeles and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the Art Center of Design. Indeed, it was whilst in the United States that he began to produce work that would earn him international recognition as an important artistic photographer.Sugimoto is known for creating distinct series of works, varying in form and content,and shaped by his particular perspective on the world. He has continued to contribute pieces to a number of his past series over the decades, which is fitting as much of his work explores the theme of time. Sugimoto’s work features disquieting black and white images, shots of vast natural expanses, and portraits of waxwork figures, all of which seem to transcend the conventional limits of reality. Sugimoto resides in Tokyo and New York, but his work has been exhibited at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Osaka, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Sugimoto is renowned for his long exposure shots, developing images of the world that the human eye and mind cannot naturally observe. In this regard, the photographs bear a resemblance to the striking scenes in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, where time-lapse footage captures humanity moving at an unnerving pace. Many of Sugimoto’s recent exhibitions have also included the use of artwork and sculptures from his extensive personal collection. An ideal case in point is the recent exhibition, Aujourd’hui, le monde est mort, which art critic Adrian Searle described as ‘theatrical and mystifying’.


The Dioramas series caught the attention of the art world in the 1970s and has held it ever since as the body of work continues to grow. As Sugimoto himself explains, he was visiting the American Museum of Natural History in 1974 and found the dioramas of stuffed animals set against painted backdrops totally unbelievable. Removing all perspective by closing one eye, Sugimoto says it was as if he was looking through the lens of a camera. Armed with this new perspective, he realized the potential to create the illusion of reality. Thus began Sugimoto’s series of photographs of dioramas, which he has frequently revisited and contributed to in recent years. By draining the color from the museum’s artificial backdrops, Sugimoto makes the unreal come to life. The result is an image that is somewhat more realistic than its real-life counterpart.

Lightning Fields

In 2008, Sugimoto created a series of works in which he used electricity to imprint glass-coated photographic emulsions in a darkroom. Capturing forked lightning as it illuminates the night sky has long held a fascination for amateur and professional photographers, but Sugimoto approaches the subject in his characteristically unique fashion. Rather than capturing the image of a flash of electricity, he uses bursts of electrical currents from various devices – some of which he has himself designed – which imprint their own ethereal shadows onto dry plates. Sugimoto has described it as a process of experiencing for himself the discoveries of Benjamin Franklin’s era.

Pine Trees

Pine Trees demonstrates another case of re-imagining someone else’s work and distilling someone else’s vision through an idiosyncratic lens, initiated in 2001. Influenced by the work of 16th century Japanese painter Hasegawa Tōhaku, Sugimoto set off on a journey to capture the pine trees of Japan in his distinctive monochromatic format. Tilting his cap to Tōhaku, Sugimoto sought to create his own version of the painter’s ‘Pine Forest Screens’, which are considered to be amongst Japan’s most prized cultural possessions. In typical Sugimoto style, after visiting various forests noted for their pine trees, he found the exact trees he was looking for at the Imperial Palace, where the manicured flora belies nature. The result is a series of photographs that Sugimoto has referred to as paintings, composed of composite images of individually selected trees. Despite this, the images are imbued with the same universal quality as the trees of Tōhaku.


As an artist who constantly seeks to alter the boundaries between reality and fiction, it is unsurprising that the silver screen would provide Sugimoto with the material for some of his most iconic work. In the early days of cinema, the Lumière brothers showed audiences their film of a train arriving at a station, ‘L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat’, which reportedly had people jumping up from their seats and fleeing in panic. Whilst most likely untrue, the urban myth demonstrates the power of cinema and its potential to create illusions that the audience is ready and willing to believe. Sugimoto, in a brilliant act of subversion, chose to capture an entire screening of a film in a single shot, closing the aperture only as the credits rolled. The pictures depict, at their most superficial, simply a beaming silver screen. The longer one looks however, the more the glowing blankness speaks volumes about the act of theater-going; about time; about perception. The pictures also comprise a strange form of cultural documentation, where the grand, empty cinema only briefly holds the viewer’s attention before it is drawn back to the pulsating silver void. By Sasha Frost

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