Inspired by the origins of photography, Hiroshi Sugimoto has created eerie images that get to the heart of the medium. Our reporter meets the artist in his New York studio ahead of his major new exhibition in Edinburgh
HIROSHI Sugimoto is a man of many enthusiasms, as evidenced by the objects dotted around his Manhattan studio. Fossils, meteorites, mosses, European antiques, a collection of tools and architectural models. Like a master craftsman tinkering away in his workshop, he is forever trying out an innovative technique or learning a new skill. And his passion for what he does knocks two decades off the 63-year-old's appearance.
Dressed in jeans and a blue polo shirt, with short silver hair, the twinkly Sugimoto is far from planning his retirement. On an early weekday morning, he is bubbling over with creative energy as he talks about his new career, as an architect.
"I'm very good and I'm still cheap," he says, referring to the Tokyo architecture practice he opened last year. "I'm a young architect," he adds with the first of many infectious giggles of the sort you might expect from a schoolgirl rather than one of the most respected and commercially successful artists in the world. Warming to his theme, he continues, "I should start marketing myself as a package – if you commission a building, you get some good Sugimoto pictures thrown in. And if you buy a lot of art, I'll throw in a building." More mischievous laughter.
Sugimoto's sprawling whitewashed Chelsea studio is abuzz with activity. Trendy assistants in skinny jeans and geeky specs scurry about, getting his photographs ready to be shipped to Edinburgh for a major new exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Consisting entirely of works which are being shown in Europe for the first time, the exhibition will feature 26 large-scale works from two of Sugimoto's most recent series, Lightning Fields and Photogenic Drawings. In the works, which are both technically and aesthetically stunning, Sugimoto explores of the very nature of photography.
The artist points to several of the pieces from the Photogenic Drawings series which decorate the walls of the studio. They include a number of details of ferns and leaves, blown up to many times their original size, in a rich palette of blue, brown and gold. Nearby, two young female assistants are standing on a table, carefully packing one of the huge pieces up. The series was inspired by the techniques of the 19th-century photographer Henry Fox Talbot, who invented "photogenic drawings" by using light-sensitive paper to produce a negative in the early experimental days of photography. The process was especially influential in shaping the careers of the Scottish painter-photographer team Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill, who went on to become one of the most famous collaborations in photographic history.
Sugimoto is delighted to be showing the images in Edinburgh. "History-wise, Edinburgh is a very important city for photography," he says referring to Adamson and Hill, and the influential 19th-century Edinburgh Photographic Club, one of the first such clubs to be established in the UK.
An admirer of Fox Talbot's work for many years, Sugimoto made a pilgrimage to his former home, Lacock Abbey, in Wiltshire, now a National Trust property. Inspired, he set about trying to acquire as many of the photographer's negatives as he could lay his hands on. His search took him to a private collector who, having spent a sizable chunk of his life and savings building up his collection, wasn't eager to be parted from it.
"Eventually we struck a stone age deal involving an entire year's profits from all my activities and some of my most important pieces of work," says Sugimoto. In return he got 15 of Fox Talbot's rare and fragile original negatives. He set about trying to find a way to work with them to create his own artworks, aware that exposure to even the slightest light could destroy the images forever. Sugimoto compares his work with them to "an archaeological explorer excavating an ancient dynastic tomb". The small scale of Fox Talbot's work has been greatly enlarged by Sugimoto to reveal images that are haunting and almost painterly in their evocative power.
Born in Tokyo, Sugimoto moved to California in the 1970s where he discovered the counter- culture, an eye-opening experience for a politically-sensitive Japanese graduate of economics and Western philosophy. "I'd never thought about being an artist before, it just hadn't occurred to me. When I came to America, I discovered art and thought this is the most challenging thing. So I decided to do art."
After studying photography at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, he moved to New York and began work on his photographic series. Today he divides his time between New York and Tokyo.
Sugimoto's status as one of the world's leading artists has been acknowledged with solo shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, along with LAMoCA, MCA Chicago and Tokyo's Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, among others. The older he gets, the more varied his workload. His image Boden Sea, Uttwil featured on the cover of the U2 album No Line on the Horizon while he recently designed and built a Shinto shrine as part of an architectural commission at Naoshima Contemporary Art Center in Japan. He's also creating his own Japanese art foundation. "Architecture is taking up more and more of my time," he says, before adding with a giggle, "and my money." He shoots a look at his assistant, Gregg, and the two men laugh.
The artist leads the way into his darkroom, in a far corner of his studio, which occupies a large slice of prime Manhattan real estate.
Inside the dark room is the huge late 19th/early 20th-century big box camera he works with and the correspondingly large sheets of film. He points out a Van de Graaff generator which he used for his Lightning Fields series, creating dramatic and spectacular photographs which look like lightning strikes and weird and wonderful life forms. The series was inspired by a problem Sugimoto had with static electricity in his studio ruining his photographs, by creating white flashes on the finished image. He moved studio several times to escape the problem but wherever he went it persisted, so he decided to "make a friend of my enemy" by deliberately replicating the phenomenon using a Van de Graaf Generator. Reflecting on the pictures, he says, "When you think about lightning and the random aspects of it, it's science but it's also mythical and mystical."
Sugimoto never describes a series as finished, preferring always to leave the door open for more. "I'm never satisfied, I always want to be challenged," he adds.
He steps out on to the 11th-floor balcony, just off his dark-room, which has stunning views to the Hudson River. "This is where I come when I need fresh air," he says, before turning his attention to an ugly new concrete neighbour which has spoiled his view. "None of that was there before," he says with a sigh, sounding every bit the native New Yorker.
At the end of a long corridor is a store room where his negatives and large-scale works are stacked from floor to ceiling. He jokes that he might have to start working on a smaller scale to save space. In another corner of his studio, up a short wooden staircase, is the place where he comes to try out new ideas. At the foot of the stairs sits a sculpture, which takes the form of his favourite mathematical formula.
Planted around the periphery of the room are mosses, part of his experiment to see which varieties could survive New York's extremes of temperature. In one corner, separated from the rest of the room by bamboo screens, he is creating a traditional Japanese ceremonial tea room, which he plans to use as a showroom, complete with a master tea-maker.
"Photography is just one of my activities," says Sugimoto. "I do theatre producing, architecture and many other things. I see myself as a scientist, artist and historian." He points out the workshop where he makes tools which he uses to make his artworks. "Tools are very important. These are tools you can't buy," he says. "I like getting my hands dirty, that's what photography is about."
• Hiroshi Sugimoto is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, from 4 August until 18 September, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. www.eif.co.uk