Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘Remains to Be Seen’ finds meaning in vacancy

Fraenkel Gallery/Courtesy

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A ghostly apparition is all that is left of the movie screen. A glowing white rectangle appears frozen in the midst of cinema ruins. With his camera, Hiroshi Sugimoto has successfully captured images that showcase the dualities of the past and present.

Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto’s project “Remains to Be Seen” — now on display at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco — documents abandoned movie theaters that are caught in the temporal stage of either being preserved or demolished. But Sugimoto is not just documenting the theaters; he actively inserts himself into his work.

To project movies in these out-of-commission theaters, Sugimoto brings his own computer and stage curtain to use as a screen. He chooses the movies he projects in the abandoned theaters based around his interest in the development of popular culture; thus, the films he screens are primarily post-apocalyptic and cult Japanese films. Sugimoto questions what the future will look like based off of the changes he has witnessed, especially in the viewership of film.

His questioning is most evident in the interplay between the theater space and the content of the movies that he screens in those spaces.

Sugimoto picks films that he believes resonate with the architecture of each theater. In one of his theater photographs — paralleling the water-drenched framing of Japanese classic “Rashomon” — he chose the Franklin Park Theatre in Boston since there were puddles of water on the floor of the abandoned theater.

Sugimoto began photographing movie theaters in 1976, shooting hundreds of theaters globally since then. But he only began to focus on abandoned theaters in 2013 after photographing the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, although it was an operating theater.

Eight of Sugimoto’s recent works are displayed on the gray walls of the Fraenkel Gallery, including the transitory 2013 photograph of the Palais de Tokyo. The other seven works were photographed in 2015 at theaters across America ranging from Gary, Indiana to Newark, New Jersey. Sugimoto also repurposed several spaces into theaters, such as the roof of the Wolf Building where his studio resides in New York and a parking lot that used to be the Michigan Theater in Detroit.

With the images in “Remains to Be Seen,” Sugimoto questions the conventional notion of time. All of the photographs have exposure times that correspond to the length of the movie. For example, Sugimoto’s image of the Paramount Theatre in Newark was exposed for 134 minutes, the duration of the 1959 post-apocalyptic nuclear war film “On the Beach.” The illuminated white rectangles account for all the light and blurring of the movie frames in the long-exposure photographs. Sugimoto’s photographs are a composite of the duration of the film — thousands of movie stills — into a single image, as if suspended in a single moment.

All of the theater photographs in “Remains to Be Seen” are shot in black and white — perhaps as an homage to the peak of grandeur in theaters. The silver gelatin prints appear massive on the gallery walls, sizing in at 61 1/8-by-72 7/8 inches. Long exposure times with a fairly small aperture allowed for Sugimoto to capture incredibly crisp detail in his images. Although the glowing rectangles are obviously and intentionally over-exposed, the minute details of the abandoned theatre have been properly exposed, giving the viewer the ability to see even the finest details in the shadows.

Sugimoto’s photos capture the beauty in these decaying theaters. Although they are long-exposure shots that capture short-term change in the form of a blurred movie, the architecture of the theatre is static despite its obvious signs of wear over longer periods of time. Between the graffiti, peeling wallpaper and collapsing infrastructure, there are signs of memories past within the deterioration. Although no people are present in his work, the product of human action is pictured as decay. The images evoke a sense of sadness and somber appreciation.

“Remains to Be Seen” seems to have intentional ambiguity in the meaning of its title. It could refer to what remains to be seen of the theater, what remains to be seen of the blurred film or even what remains to be seen of fleeting memories. With his photography, Sugimoto seems to be attempting to stop time and recapture memories that are on the verge of being forgotten.

Contact Nicole White at [email protected].