Early morning, dawn. Cold clear.
Castle Point, Falmouth, purpose built for easterly seawards observation and the perfect location to record pre-dawn and sunrise. The simplest of pictorial forms: the sky, the sea, separated by the horizon line. It’s hard to view this scene without mediating it through the seascapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto.
A photographer I met said that Sugimoto’s seascapes couldn’t be improved and that his body of work is the last word in seascape photography. The implication being that Sugimoto’s photographs render all other seascapes redundant. But surely they are just one kind of aesthetic. When his work is compared to the Nineteenth Century photographer, Gustave Le Gray, that aesthetic becomes clear. Superficially their seascapes are similar but Le Gray worked in a completely different tradition to Sugimoto’s. Le Gray is heavily influenced by nineteenth century academy painting, with its onus on a classical realism. His photographs, made of two separate exposures, one for sea and one for sky, whilst lyrical are more descriptive than Sugimoto’s.
Sugimoto’s seascapes are formalist, the sea and the sky separated by the centrally placed horizon line. They are radically minimalist, stripping elements down to their rawest forms, bringing to mind Ad Reinhardt’s work.
But with their sea mists and out of focus impressionism, they reach towards the infinite and in so doing the photographs also reference the Romantic Tradition. They reference the sublime tradition in painting that sprang from the Northern European Protestant practice of finding the spiritual in the natural landscape. This strain of painting is exmplified by Caspar David Friedrich and reaches its summation in the late paintings of Mark Rothko.