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Mamoru Sugiyama at the Photo Gallery International

by Monty DiPietro

With an oeuvre more than a quarter century in the making, Mamoru Sugiyama is due for a retrospective exhibition. So that is exactly what Tokyo's respected Photo Gallery International (PGI) has given the 49 year old photographer, in a show featuring some 30 of Sugiyama's representative black and white still life studies. The thing is, if you didn't know that this was a retrospective, you'd never guess by looking at the pictures so true has Sugiyama remained to his original vision that the pictures taken 25 years ago have exactly the same atmosphere as those done no more than a few months ago.

Which is not to knock the artist or "Still Life Twenty Five Years," as the show is called. There is something special in Sugiyama's prints, a presence diametrically opposed to self-documentation photography or the sexy "in the moment" style that flourished over the last decade.

Like the pause button on a video player, the camera shutter can capture a moment that would be otherwise inscrutable. Our eyes love the look of a sparkling wall of droplets exploding in the wake of a water-skier, or the crispness of a 300 kph racecar panned against the stretching colors of a blurred background. The way fast photography snatches a split-second has always had a certain appeal, and one of the most celebrated early applications of photography was in stop-action techniques achieved through the use of flashbulbs in studios that resembled laboratories. But there was a parallel school that developed in 19th century picture taking, one that was informed by traditional painting, and that, put simply, was the examination of everyday things, and how we see them.

This is the way Sugiyama works. It was a quarter of a century ago, while he was a student at Nihon University's Department of Photography, that Sugiyama set out looking for subjects for still-life photographs and found what he wanted in a empty benzene bottle. The bottle was set upon a plain wooden table top, and photographed against an out of focus background. Because the label is turned away from the camera and the bottle is backlit, we see the printed text through the back of the label, and so it reads backwards. But before our brain realizes this and deduces the orientation of the label, the eye has jumped to its own conclusion, based on the expected perspective paradigm which has the label facing forward. Once reason has ordered a switch in our understanding, the label commences to undulating inside the bottle, between convex and concave, and that creates a disorientation which is rather interesting.

The benzene bottle picture, which caught the attention of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, is one of the best pieces in the show. There are also a number of similar studies featuring a Coke bottle, a Guinness bottle, and an elegant little perfume bottle that has been detailed with flowing organza and given the title "Dressed-up Bottle," which is probably pushing the theme a little if you ask me. Elsewhere are quite a few other everyday items, a bicycle pump, a rubber band, and so on.

Sugiyama tries his hand at conceptualism, laying an eggplant and a green pepper on opposite pages of an open notebook, but if there is something deeper in this picture I didn't get it. More interesting is "Clouds," a 1998 work that takes the natural light from a window reflecting off an interior wall as its primary point of focus.

There are also a couple of portraits in the show, but the best of the people pictures is a candid shot that finds Sugiyama's son, Kei, running along on the roof of their apartment building. It would be interesting to see more of this type of relaxed work from Sugiyama, given that the majority of the very formal pictures here feature even lighting, sharp focus, and put the subject dead center frame.

The compact PGI, despite being marooned out in Shibaura, is a professional gallery that knows how to hang and light photography to advantage. These are luscious prints, all 40 x 50cm, with more than a few really good works among them.

Notes: The Mamoru Sugiyama exhibition "Still Life Twenty Five Years" runs to March 31 2001 at PGI (3455-7827). Pictured is "Benezine Bottle" (1976)
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