Hiroshi Sugimoto

October 2011

Publication: The Times

Japanese photographer, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s collection of 26 large-scale photographic prints explore electricity, as well as delving into the history and nature of photography itself.  One series, Photogenic Drawings, derives its name from a collection of negative plates made by one of the earliest exponents of photography, Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877).  The other, Lightning Fields, probes the hidden world of violent electrical discharge, captured directly on photographic film.


Sugimoto has taken a number of Fox Talbot’s plates (now in Sugimoto’s collection) and reprinted from them. The results are as revelatory as they are mysterious and beautiful. It’s entirely possible that these images are being seen for the first time, as it is not at all certain that Fox Talbot printed the negatives. As well as standard forms of photograph (often involving portraiture) Fox Talbot also created images without a camera by placing an object (such as a fern leaf or shark’s egg-case) directly on light-sensitive paper.


The ghostly, faded ethereal images (greatly enlarged by Sugimoto) emerge from a buried, distant  past. Because of these photographs’ direct relationship to reality (they are, in fact a true ‘index’) the images appear and feel real, not imagined. By contrast, Sugimoto’s direct capture of electrical charges both records the behaviour of this mysterious energy and also suggests that on this micro level, patterning and form link to other, more familiar, phenomena such as vascular systems or the behaviour of water.


The exhibition at Edinburgh’s Dovecot studios, collectively entitled Heirlooms, is divided in two – the first, based on Indian and South-east Asian materials belonging to collector Jonathan Hope; and the second, the response of three British weavers to the Indian fabric tradition.  Hope’s collection of elegant and often complexly-patterned wall hangings, sarongs, kemben (breast wrappers), kain panjang (hip cloths) and selendang (shawls and head covers) dates from the 1600s to the present day.


Embedded within the collection is a complex story of politics, trade, industrialisation, spirituality and aesthetics. The replacement of eastern hand-woven cottons by their finer, more closely woven counterparts made in Holland at the beginning of the industrial revolution changed the way that dyes and batik methods were used. The closer weave allowed for more delicate patterning and finer working detail.  Looking at these beautiful objects makes the point that visual abstraction is not solely a modern idea. Although many of the motifs are based on the observed world (such as wings or warriors) some appear as pure abstraction – geometric shapes and blocks of bold colour.



The response of Deidre Nelson, Naomi Robertson and Sarah Sumison to Indian textile traditions is individual and carefully considered. Sumison in particular shows an implicit understanding of the significance of colour with the delicate intricate silk tapestry Threads of Life.


It’s clear from the content of both shows that the worlds of ‘fine art’ and ‘craft’ are intertwined and should never be regarded as separate