At Rencontres d'Arles, Theoretical Color in a Sea of Black & White

Hiroshi Sugimoto. Couleur Polarisée 032, 2010. ----- Hiroshi Sugimoto. Polarized Color 032, 2010.© Hiroshi Sugimoto

Over the past couple of years we've provided some updates from Paris Photo, which is without a doubt the world's largest event for photography galleries. Today marks the beginning of another French photography event, but this one strikes a different tone than the sales-oriented Paris Photo. The Rencontres d'Arles is a nearly three-month long event that takes place in Arles, in southern France. More than anything, it's aimed at photographers: there are portfolio reviews, lectures, workshops, and plenty of exhibitions throughout the festival. If you're going to be around the South of France over the next couple months it's certainly worth stopping by—just be sure to check out the website before you go, because there's a lot of information to process.

Hermès Éditeur square scarf, Colours of shadow 128 1/7
Hermès Éditeur square scarf, Colours of shadow 128 1/7
Hiroshi Sugimoto Carré Hermès Ã?diteur, Couleurs de lâ??ombre 128 1/7 ----- Hiroshi Sugimoto Carré Hermès Ã?diteur (Hermès Ã?diteur square scarf), Colours of shadow 128 1/7

The theme of this year's festival is "Arles in Black," meaning that there's a particular focus on black and white photography. Among the photographers who are getting top billing at the festival is Hiroshi Sugimoto, and if you know his previous work (like his "Seascapes" or "Theaters") you'll understand why he fits well with this theme. However, Sugimoto is throwing everyone for a loop, as he's taking this opportunity to present his first-ever work shot in color.

If you’ve seen a Sugimoto show in person, you will know that he always writes the explanatory text on the wall. This text always justifies his work philosophically, and “Colours of Shadow” is no different. Sugimoto has placed himself between Isaac Newton (who devised a mathematical model for colors) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (who responded to Newton’s model by calling for a more sensual understanding of color). In this work, Sugimoto is photographing the pure color of sunlight, which he captured in his studio.

“Sunlight travels through black empty space, strikes and suffers my prism, and refracts into an infinite continuum of colour. In order to view each hue more clearly, I devised a mirror with a special micro-adjusting tilting mechanism. Projecting the coloured beam from a prism onto my mirror, I reflected it into a dim observation chambre where I reduced it to Polaroid colours. [...] With neither Newton’s cool, impassionate arithmetic gaze on nature, nor Goethe’s warm poetic reflexivity, I employed my own photographic devices toward a Middle Way.”

I've been interested in Sugimoto for a while; I made many visits to his retrospective show when it was in San Francisco in 2007, and this was an important experience for me. These days, I wonder whether one of Sugimoto's most sharply-honed talents isn't his ability to self-mythologize. After all, placing yourself in line with Newton and Goethe takes some real audacity, but he's so persuasive that this claim doesn't seem nearly as far-fetched as it really should. In any case, I'm curious to see these images on paper—or scarf, given that this work is also a collaboration with Hermès.

If you’re not so interested in terrestrial light, you might want to have a look at some of the images being collected from Mars, which will also be on display at the festival:

Hellespontus Montes region
Hellespontus Montes region
Région Hellespontus Montes Avec lâ??aimable autorisation des éditions Xavier Barral/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona. ----- Hellespontus Montes region Courtesy of Ã?ditions Xavier Barral/NASA/JPL/The University of Arizona.Courtesy of Éditions Xavier Barral/NASA/JPL/The University of Arizona
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