PHOTOGRAPHY is all around us. There's a picture on my computer screen, a Polaroid snap stuck to the wall, an image on the side of a book jacket and a glossy face staring out from a magazine. The form is so ubiquitous it is easy to forget the technology was still in a rudimentary state as recently as 170 years ago.
That's why when leading Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto looks back at the work of Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the calotype process in 1841, he is full of admiration. "Not only was he the inventor of negative/positive photography, he was a mathematician, a botanist, a politician, an archaeologist, a poet, a physicist, and one of the first decipherers of the Sumerian written language of Cuneiform," he says. "He was truly a 'Gentleman Scientist'."
Investigating Fox Talbot's techniques for himself, Sugimoto found himself humbled by the achievements of the British pioneer. His attitude, he says, went "from curiosity to awe". It is that sense of awe he hopes to convey in his Edinburgh Art Festival exhibition – a collaboration with the Edinburgh International Festival – which is deeply rooted in the story of photography. "I feel it is important to understand the history of the medium I work in," he says. "My Photogenic Drawings series is meant to bookend the birth and death of traditional photography."
On show in Europe for the first time, Photogenic Drawings (a term coined by Fox Talbot) are enlargements of the master's earliest negatives unearthed by Sugimoto in the darkest corners of museum collections. Fox Talbot himself never saw the startling, painterly effects because these negatives pre-date his invention of a reliable technique to turn them positive.
Also on show is Lightning Fields, a series of amazing light effects created by Sugimoto using a Van der Graaff generator. "It took many years of testing – different generators, film emulsions, techniques, et cetera," he says. "Using the scientific method, I would change one parameter for each experiment and keep detailed notes of the results. This technique is very similar to the procedures Fox Talbot used in developing his Photogenic Drawing process."
So detailed were his experiments that he came to have considerable control over the seemingly random bursts of light and spiky streaks of energy. "While the results may seem somewhat unpredictable, depending on the tools and techniques I use, I can predict the character of the spark," he says. "I discharge the electricity onto large sheets of film that come on a roll and then cut the film down to a printable 8x10 size, so I have complete control of the final composition."
These defiantly old-school methods are a reaction to the chemical-free processes of 21st-century cameras. "With the rise of digital photography, perhaps traditional silver-based photography can have a self-reflexive moment, since it no longer has concern itself with representing the world around us, much like what happened with painting after the invention of photography," he says.
"As for deciding what looks good," he adds, "well, that is my job as an artist."
WHERE & WHEN
HIROSHI SUGIMOTO: LIGHTNING FIELDS AND PHOTOGENIC DRAWINGS
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art,
4 August–18 September, 10am–6pm.
Tel: 0131 624 6200
© Mark Fisher 2011
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