Sonnabend Gallery, New York, New York
Purchased by Akron Art Museum, 1996
2007: "Prized Images: The Knight Purchase Award for Photographic Media 1991-2006" 7/17/07-10/14/07, Akron Art Museum
1998: "Sugimoto" 4/4/98-5/31/98, Akron Art Museum
1997-1998: "75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 9/25/97-2/1/98, Akron Art Museum
19 3/4 x 25 in., mount
title, date AP 3/5 203, embossed LR of print; signed in pencil on mount at LR
Akron Civic, Ohio, 1980
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
Empty or full? The white rectangle of the movie screen in Hiroshi Sugimoto's photograph appears to be blank—ready to reflect the romances, adventures, and tragedies of the Hollywood dream machine of the 1920s and 1930s. The screen sits on the stage of the Akron Civic Theatre, a 1929 movie and vaudeville palace whose interior is designed to evoke nighttime in a centuries-old Moorish garden.1 The theater's most famous feature—its "atmospheric" domed ceiling of blinking stars and floating clouds—is not visible in Sugimoto's depiction, which centers instead on the white movie screen.
Akron Civic, Ohio is one of a series of images of American movie palaces and drive-in theaters made by Sugimoto beginning in the late 1970s. All the pictures feature a white rectangle, which glows with an otherworldly brightness suggestive of the magical nature of viewing a film. There is indeed magic at work here—the magic of physics and photography. Just as white light seems pure but actually contains all the colors of the spectrum, so each rectangle appears empty but in fact contains an entire film (which one is unimportant).
To make the images in this series, Sugimoto placed his large, 8 x 10-inch view camera at the farthest point from the screen. Sometimes, as in Akron Civic, that put him in the balcony. He would then open the camera's shutter and expose his film throughout the entire movie, a duration of one to two hours. Although taken in virtual darkness, Sugimoto's photographs reveal the theaters’ interiors because sufficient light reflected from the screen during the extremely long exposure time.2 As each frame of the movie danced over the "silver" screen, it also registered on the silver crystals of Sugimoto's film. Viewed all at once, the frames produce a seemingly blank white screen.
Sugimoto's theater photographs contradict the usual notion of photography as a medium that freezes a single moment. Much more time is incorporated into Akron Civic : the imagined past of Moorish Spain evinced by the décor, the golden age of Hollywood's dream palaces, and the two hours it takes to view an entire movie. At first glance the theater photographs appear to stop time; paradoxically, however, they capture its flow.
In addition to this theater image, the Akron Art Museum owns eight seascapes by Sugimoto. All of the artist’s major series—theaters, seascapes, natural history museum dioramas, and the sculptures of a twelfth-century Buddhist temple in Japan—pose riddles and present opposing dualities that would be at home in the Asian philosophy of Zen. Sugimoto himself has lived in two, often contradictory, cultures. Born and raised in Japan, he received a B.A. from St. Paul's University in Tokyo in 1970, then moved to Los Angeles to acquire a B.F.A. from the Art Center College of Design in 1972. He has resided in New York since 1974 and now divides his time between there and Tokyo.
Sugimoto's theater series documents the American phenomenon of the movie palace, but it also reflects concerns about the nature of photography and the act of looking. While the photographs are impeccably printed, the underlying conceptual process is as important to the artist as the physical object that results from it. Is art illusion or reality? Concept or object? Full or empty?
- Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001
1. The Akron Civic Theatre, designed by Viennese architect John Eberson, was built as the Akron Loew's Theatre. Information on the history of the building was provided by the Akron Civic Theatre.
2. There is no audience visible in this photograph because, according to the recollections of Patti Eddy, theater manager at the time, the film was run in an empty theater especially for the artist's photograph. Sugimoto rarely had the luxury of such a special showing, so most often would go to an early show and ask audience members to move back to a row where they would not be seen in the photograph.
Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. Sugimoto. Houston and Tokyo: Contemporary Arts Museum and Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996.
Sugimoto, Hiroshi. Motion Picture by Sugimoto. Milan, Italy, and Locarno, Switzerland: Skira editore and Galleria SPAS, 1995.
———. Sugimoto: Photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Dioramas, Theaters, Seascapes. Japan: Mitsumura, 1988.