Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine | Hayward Gallery

Viewing this retrospective, claimed by the Hayward Gallery to be the Japanese-born photographer’s largest to date, felt like a luxurious experience. The gallery’s raw concrete walls were low-lit; the monochrome frames glowed expensively; the blacks and whites of the photographs were glossy and sumptuous. The visitors were hushed and reverent.

In his roughly half-century of active artistic production, Hiroshi Sugimoto is known for his limited subject matter as well as his extreme technical excellence. He works in series, not one-offs. My favourite series, in between his famous seascapes, dioramas and shots of a mind-bending looking Buddhist temple, was a set taken from drive-in movie theatres in the 1990s.

Hiroshi Sugimoto ‘Union City Drive-In, Union City’ (1993)

Image source: sugimotohiroshi.com

I like the one pictured above best of all: Union City Drive-In, Union City, from 1993. The white centre of the screen, an uber-long exposure of an entire movie, like all of Sugimoto’s other photos from theatres, became both a magical radiance and a scary void.

What stood out is the incongruousness of the screen’s surroundings: scrubby trees, well-worn metal listening stations, a scuffed sign, warning patrons off doing something or other. Outside the frame, I imagined a run-down, empty drive-in theatre in a sad suburb, soon to close. Despite the luxurious lustrousness of the photograph.

But all around, there are signs of the sublime. The rim of the horizon glows with sundown. Jet trails - I guess to or from one of the New York City area airports that must be close by - streak the sky, on crazy collision courses. Though of course, that’s just an illusion, a result of the hours-long exposure.

It’s the same illusion that created that central white screen: the magical void, that’s both nothing and everything.

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine is at Hayward Gallery (London). 11 October 2023 - 07 January 2024