The Romance of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Movie Palace

The Romance of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Movie Palace


Theater, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Silver Gelatin Print, 1970s/80s.

Theater, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Silver Gelatin Print, 1970s/80s.

A burst of light and a flash. Hiroshi Sugimoto, the acclaimed Japanese photographer of seascapes and movie theatres idealizes and romanticizes his subjects. A darkened movie palace, the American dream of the thirties, is glamourised and beautified in this 20 x 24 inch silver gelatin print. Entitled ‘Theater’ for this article, this image comes from a spark of ingenuity-

Suppose you shoot a whole movie in a single frame? …You get a shining screen.
-Hiroshi Sugimoto

Sugimoto dressed up as a tourist one night, ‘walked into a cheap cinema in the East Village with a large-format camera. As soon as the movie started he opened the shutter wide. Once the movie ended, he clicked the shutter closed. That evening, he developed the film and the vision exploded behind his eyes’ (
That was in the seventies. ‘Theater’ is not just a depiction of the opulence of thirties American theater interiors but also the heyday and glamour of watching a Hollywood movie; of being seen. What is unique about this photograph is that it is totally devoid of people- awed movie-goers who will flood the seats of these luxurious movie palaces to watch their favourite stars onscreen. The screen on the other hand is not projecting faces of celebrities reenacting plush, imagined lives but awash with a strong beam of white light that illuminate the darkened interior of the theater and the glamour of the forgotten yesteryears.

Movies are hence essentially white light, thousands of frames compressed in one single moment. The creator of light is hence not the directors but God the creator of heaven and earth.

Sugimoto shot the image from the back of the room, revealing the space, the rows of small, empty seats from a bird’s eye view. This recalls a Janet Cardiff work, ‘The Muriel Lake Incident’, where sound and imagination are mixed through the munching of popcorns, people whispering, a shuffle here and there and the soundtracks of talkies. But there is no one in ‘Theater’ except for the deep, silent space of Baroque-style ornamentations. The irony therefore is that once the lights are down, all the opulence of the Hollywood golden age is gone and shrouded in darkness.

Sugimoto is hence more concern about the speed of light and its portrayal. The science of optics and the geekiness of timeframe reductions are hence accidentally translated into beautiful shots of American night theaters where its forgotten ruins of yesteryears are revived.

The white screen- the fantasy and dreams of watchers contained and projected, becomes a point of focus. However, it is just a white image of an unnamed movie at an unknown point in time.


Ps: If anyone knows the exact title of this work, pls drop it in the comment box below.

Disclaimer: All views on the site are solely of the author’s and in no way are a representation of any individuals or organisations.

Copyright © 2014 Liau Shu Juan.


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