Creation through destruction?

I’ve taken a few days to get round to this post, because I still can’t make up my mind about the question in it. After I’ve posted, I need to go google it and see what other people think.

I went to a talk on Tuesday about Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose photography is currently being exhibited at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art – I saw the exhibition itself a few weeks ago. I was incredibly impressed by the exhibition when I saw it. It’s composed of two photographic series: Lightning Fields and Photogenic Drawings.

The Lightning Fields photographs are very beautiful images created by applying static electricity from a Van de Graaff generator. I just found my exhibition ticket, and on the back of it I’d written “like retina, spine, feathers, river, dragonflies, water boatmen”. There’s something about the scale-invariant nature of the images that makes them look very natural but they still have all the connotations of lightning, a bit dangerous, a bit Frankenstein’s monster. And on gorgeous, tactile black.

The Photogenic Drawings is a completely different series (at the talk on Tuesday, Martin Barnes from the V&A talked about how conceptual Sugimoto’s work is). The top-level description on the National Galleries website says that this series was “inspired by the innovative techniques of the 19th century photographer, Henry Fox Talbot” but that’s not really the whole story: Sugimoto used genuine Fox Talbot negatives to make large, gorgeous prints. These are some of the earliest photographs ever, blown up from postage stamp scale to become gallery-sized. The colours are rich but subtle (think Farrow and Ball) and the pictures range from vague and ghostly through to startlingly sharp (the twisting wild fennel).

What I didn’t really appreciate till it was fully pointed out to me at the talk was that Fox Talbot’s negatives are, of course, scarily delicate. This was 1840 and everything was new and a bit provisional. Martin Barnes spoke of seeing the earliest Fox Talbot negative in Bradford… or rather, seeing the box it’s kept in, protected from light and climate control. All museum-collected Fox Talbot negatives are kept like that.

So when I wondered at the exhibition “how did Sugimoto get permission to print from these early negatives given that they’ll be very fragile”, the answer is: he just bought them. He paid up to half a million dollars per negative. And by making these beautiful images from them, he hurt them. Light exposure will degrade them until they no longer exist.

I have to say, the first thing I felt on finding this out was excitement. How audacious! He just thought what he wanted to do and did it. And the result is perfect.

But then my natural hoarding instinct comes into play and I think, these are important. He’s destroying history.

I don’t know. I just don’t know whether history is supposed to live forever, not all of it. These negatives are degrading anyway, little by little, however carefully they’re kept. Pictures of them taken in the 1930s show them to be much sharper than they are now. When I look at old family photos, sometimes I wonder whether it’s actually right that eventually we don’t know who these people are, that they fade away. That colours dim and edges blur. Maybe it’s our digital document everything, keep everything, don’t have to delete age that has things the wrong way round.

But then I imagine someone cutting up a Monet waterlilies to make a new artwork and it makes me wince.

I think I still come down on Sugimoto’s side, but only just.

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