In June 1850 William Henry Fox Talbot conducted an experiment at the Royal Society, using static electricity stored in Leyden jars.
He concluded from this experiment that: “it is within our power to obtain pictures of all moving objects providing we have the means of sufficiently illuminating them with a sudden electric flash.”
Over 160 years later, Hiroshi Sugimoto began conducting experiments to try and strike lightning directly onto film, using the same device that Talbot had used, the Wimshurst Electrostatic Generator, as well as others generators.
By placing the film directly on a metal plate in the dark room, Sugimoto charged the generator to release a 400,000-volt charge of electricity until he ‘could feel the hairs on his arms stand on end’. The resulting images on display in this two series exhibition reveal in meticulous detail the stunning effects of light particles not visible to the human eye.
In Lightning Fields, the viewer is left with a sense of visual bewilderment and wonder, as the large photographs collectively on display amount to a range of associations from lightening flashes to strange forms of early life, as well as evoking an almost poetic meditation on the ghostly remnants of fern stems caught by Talbot.
As Sugimoto himself reflected: “Was I trying to make artworks, or to reproduce primal life forms? Whichever, both art and science sprang from observing the natural world”.
In Photogenic Drawings, a series of photographs based on those produced from the original negatives made by Talbot, the photographs are enthralling, almost reminiscent of oil paintings in their expressive power. Sugimoto spent many years locating and acquiring these rare negatives, some perhaps unseen by Talbot himself since we don’t know for sure if he had printed them all.
Sugimoto said that by printing these negatives he headed back to the origins of photography and by doing so, perhaps to the origins of consciousness. The Botanical Specimen (1839) has an eerie feel to it, while the Portrait of Charles Porter (1842) provides a transient moment frozen in time.
The botanical world mingles with portraiture, creating an uneasy conversation between the origin of life and modernity. The sense of the ghostly remains throughout, for the small scale of Talbot’s work has been greatly enlarged by Sumitomo to reveal images that are deeply disturbing in their disproportions.
It is worth noting that Sugimoto is also deeply influenced by Marcel Duchamp, as well as the Dadaist and Surrealist movements as a whole.
The Lightning Fields is enthralling and disturbing, in the same instance. The notion of what is staged, of what is enlarged and what is real are constantly being challenged and with it, the bigger question of where does ‘primal form’ begins, and where artworks ends. Or as Mark Twain puts it: ‘Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work.’ Sugimoto’s Lightening Fields ‘does’ the work.
Part of the Edinburgh International Festival
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Lightning Fields and Photogenic Drawings is at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art Two until 25 September.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs from 12 August - 4 September. Browse the programme and book online at www.eif.co.uk or call 0131 473 2000.
This article has also been published on stv.tv which features reviews, previews and features from this year’s Festival.