Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hiroshi Sugimoto and William Henry Fox Talbot

JTF (just the facts): Two toned gelatin silver prints by Hiroshi Sugimoto, from negatives by William Henry Fox Talbot. The prints are approximately 37x30 unframed, made in editions of 10. The works can be seen as an addition to the exhibition Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lightning Fields, opening today and running through October 31 at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (here).

Comments/Context: A few weeks ago, our friends at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco sent us a pair of image scans to take a look at. As any active collector knows, the sending of scans has become the de facto process for galleries around the world to communicate with their clients: the gallery staff considers which works might fit for a certain collector and then JPEGs of those works are emailed out. For some reason, the press has latched on to this practice as evidence of the irrational excesses of idiot collectors who are buying works "sight unseen". The reality is that scans have made the art market much more liquid than it once was; it is now possible for dealers from all over the world to quickly and easily make their inventory available on a targeted basis, and with "no questions asked" and no cost to the collector return policies, buying from far flung locales is now relatively straightforward. But I digress.

The scans in my email inbox were of two new floral images by Hiroshi Sugimoto, and since we are floral collectors as well as fans of Sugimoto's work, these were potentially a good match for us. I've attached them below: (Asplenium Halleri, Grande Chartreuse, 1821-Cardamine Pratensis, April 1839 and A Stem of Delicate Leaves of an Umbrellifer, circa 1843-1846, © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

Apparently, Sugimoto has been buying up some of Talbot's earliest negatives out on the open market or from museums and has devised a way to make his own prints from them. As a reminder, original Talbot prints from the 1830s and 1840s are quite small, hardly ever larger than a single sheet of normal sized paper and nearly all of the florals are photograms. They are intimate and delicate in person, requiring the viewer to get up very close to see the intricate details of the flowers and leaves. They also come in a wide variety of colors, due to Talbot's experiments with different chemicals, some of which are faded/dark and generally hard to see.

In the history of photography, the reprinting of an earlier photographer's negatives by another artist has some strong precedents: Berenice Abbott printed Eugene Atget, Manuel Alvarez Bravo printed Tina Modotti, and Lee Friedlander printed EJ Bellocq (readers who can think of others, leave them in the comments). In each of these cases, the later photographer was attempting to the best of their ability to make prints that recreated the style/intention of the original photographer.

With these prints however, Sugimoto seems to be doing something altogether different. Rather than make faithful copy prints from the Talbot negatives, Sugimoto seems to be using them more like a musical score: the melody is the same, but the overall feel is open for interpretation and nuanced modification - he's "playing" the negatives in his own style. As such, the new prints are much larger (37x30 will hold an entire wall), and in the top image, he has apparently combined two negatives into a single work. It may also be the case that the toning is different than the original prints, although we don't have a "before and after" comparison that can be easily made.

Sugimoto is clearly interested in the workings of time, and has explored fossils and ancient art as precursors to photography via his own active collecting (his History of History exhibit at the Japan Society that brought together his photographs and selections from his personal collection of artifacts was one of the most memorable shows we've seen in the past decade). As such, this exploration of Talbot's negatives doesn't seem to me to be an exercise in grandstanding or hubris (which in the wrong hands it certainly could be), but more an archaeological questioning of how the history of the medium and its technical processes can inform the present. To use the musical analogy again, it's like Glen Gould playing Bach; one master reconsidering another.

One thing is certain: from the scans, these are spectacular images. If there is a San Francisco based collector who plans to go to the Fraenkel show and wants to comment further on how the prints look in person, we're all ears.

Collector’s POV: These Sugimoto prints are a direct hit in the center of our collecting target. The problem is that Sugimoto has become too well regarded/famous as an artist and his prices have been driven up too far; these recent prints are priced at $60000 each. So as I told the folks at the gallery, at this point, we'll have to woefully admire/covet them from afar.

Transit Hub:
  • Artist website (here)
  • article (here)
  • Globe and Mail article (here)


Dave Rudin said...

It's nice to see some credit going to the printer as well as the original image maker. Too often printers toil in the dark (quite literally) and receive no credit for their craft and artistry. It's just unfortunate that you've got to have a big name like Mr. Sugimoto to get the recognition.

Anonymous said...

Did you ask permission to reproduce the images Fraenkel sent you?

Do you think they would care that you state the prices are too high for Sugimotos work?

dlkcollection said...

I did in fact contact the gallery about reproducing the images, and they in turn got permission from the artist and gave us the appropriate copyright text to include.

As for the prices, each collector has his/her own comfort levels; what is expensive for one will be cheap for another. Our comments were not so much about whether the relative prices for these works were intrinsically too high or too low, but that they have gotten to the point that they are sadly beyond our particular comfort zone.