In my VLST101 recitation today, we discussed the work of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. In a series entitled Theaters, Sugimoto toys with the principle of time: using a long exposure, he sets up his camera to take a single frame over the duration of an entire film, collapsing thousands of seconds into a unified image. The resulting effect is a ghostly white screen, a strange shape that simultaneously captures and obscures visual data.
Every photograph is set up in an abandoned theatre; Sugimoto smuggles his large-format camera into these decaying sites, even recording the location of every photograph. Though Sugimoto captures a range of sites – from grand halls to open air cinemas – every image nonetheless resonates with a spirit of emptiness. Interestingly enough, the absence of the human form is still heavy with meaning. I am reminded of the black and white photographs of French visual artist Sophie Calle, and her exploration of identity through the remnants – not the presence – of human activity. Like Calle’s L’Hotel, these empty theaters still read as indexical, speaking to a time when these open spaces were once filled to the brim with people uniting in a communal act of viewing.
For me, Sugimoto’s work sheds a light into the shifting modalities of watching movies. At the time these spaces were in their prime, watching a movie was less so an isolated action and more so a cultural event. The act of watching a movie was inextricably yoked to a distinct physical place. While today’s technology now blesses us with the gifts of access and portability, I feel as though the movie is slowly losing it home. ‘Movie’ slowly peels away from ‘theatre’, with more of us finding new spaces to engage with the medium.
Or maybe, ‘movie’ has just found a new home. In leaving the traditional setting of these grand theaters, it finds a new residence in the living rooms of families or in the tiny bedrooms of college dorm rooms. As haunting as Sugimoto’s photographs are, I do not see them as representative of the death of the theatre. Maybe all we need to redefine these spaces.