Hiroshi Sugimoto - Photographs New York Wednesday, October 11, 2023 | Phillips

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  • Hiroshi Sugimoto’s remarkable Lightning Fields 128 transmogrifies raw electrical energy into photographic form. Rendered here in a bravura large-format print, the image delivers a visual charge that is wholly unique to this series. As such, it is one of the central pieces from the collection of Fred and Laura Bidwell, and one whose presence at their Transformer Station exhibition space was foundational. 


    Sugimoto’s Lightning Fields series has its origins in the photographer’s fascination with 18th- and 19th- century experiments with electricity, when an understanding of the force’s nature was just being discovered, as were its uses and dangers. The series also reflects Sugimoto’s deep knowledge of photographic history and his mastery of photographic technique. The Lightning Fields photographs are made without a camera and are analogous to the photogram, the early photographic technique of making an image by laying objects directly onto a photo-sensitive surface and exposing it to light. In instance of the Lightning Fields, however, electricity is both the source of illumination and the ‘object’ whose form is revealed. To make these images, Sugimoto laid a large sheet of film, measuring 7 by 2 ½ feet, on a metal surface in the darkroom. He then revved up a 400,000-volt Van de Graaff generator attached to an electrical-discharge device. As electricity built within the generator, Sugimoto recounts that the air in the perfectly dark room became palpably charged, causing the hair on his arms to stand up. When he intuited that the generator held a charge sufficient for the exposure, he touched the discharge device to the paper, creating an instantaneous – and dangerously powerful – flash of static electricity across the surface of the film. 


    Hiroshi Sugimoto, 2009


    The result of each electrical blast was invisible until the film was developed. Working from this large, exposed sheet of exposed film, Sugimoto then carefully excised what he regarded as the most interesting segment into an 8-by-10 inch size, which he then used as a negative from which to make a photographic print.


    With Lightning Fields 128, Sugimoto harnesses not only electricity but also photography’s unique ability to reveal the invisible. In his hands, electricity – the essential energizing factor of life – is made thrillingly visible. 


    The remarkable group of photographs comprising Lots 161 through 200 in this auction come from the collection of Fred and Laura Bidwell, collectors, philanthropists, and founders of the Transformer Station, the renowned exhibition space for contemporary photography and art in the Hingetown neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. The Bidwells’ collection presents a truly enlightened selection of work, ranging from classic practitioners such as Lee Friedlander and Stephen Shore to photographers working at the very cutting edge of today’s artistic practice, such as Kehinde Wiley, Zanele Muholi, and Hank Willis Thomas, among many others. Themes of identity and self-representation course through these works. An inquiry into the intrinsic nature of photography is another through-line, with artists as conceptually diverse as Alison Rossiter, Matthew Brandt, and Christopher Williams pushing the boundaries of the medium to deepen our understanding of it. Central to the collection is Hiroshi Sugimoto’s masterful Lightning Fields 128 (lot 169), which is emblematic of the creative spark underlying Bidwells’ progressive conception of photography.       


    Driven by a passion for photography and a desire to make their collection accessible to the public, the Bidwells renovated a former Cleveland Railway Company transformer substation into a state-of-the-art exhibition venue. Boasting 3,500 square feet of exhibition space, the Transformer Station became a vital part of the city’s artistic community, hosting exhibitions drawn from the Bidwells’ collection, exhibitions curated by the Cleveland Museum of Art, as well as performances and talks. Earlier this year, the Bidwells gifted Transformer Station to the Cleveland Museum of Art which will continue to use this unique space. 


    Proceeds from the sale of these works will support the Bidwells’ active philanthropic endeavors. 



    Read More about High Voltage →

    • Provenance

      Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

    • Exhibited

      Haslinger Gallery, Akron Art Museum, Akron, 1 January - 1 June 2010
      Light of Day, Transformer Station, Cleveland, 1 February - 4 May 2013

    • Artist Biography

      Hiroshi Sugimoto

      Japanese • 1948

      Hiroshi Sugimoto's work examines the concepts of time, space and the metaphysics of human existence through breathtakingly perfect images of theaters, mathematical forms, wax figures and seascapes. His 8 x 10 inch, large-format camera and long exposures give an almost eerie serenity to his images, treating the photograph as an ethereal time capsule and challenging its associations of the 'instant.' 

      In his famed Seascapes, Sugimoto sublimely captures the nature of water and air, sharpening and blurring the elements together into a seamless, formless entity.  This reflection of the human condition and its relationship with time follows through his exploration of historical topics and timeless beauty as he uniquely replicates the world around us.

      View More Works

High Voltage: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection of Fred and Laura Bidwell


Lightning Fields 128

Gelatin silver print, flush-mounted.
58 1/2 x 47 in. (148.6 x 119.4 cm)
Overall 72 x 60 in. (182.9 x 152.4 cm)

Signed in ink, printed title, date, and number 2/5 on an artist's label affixed to the reverse of the mount.

Full Cataloguing

$40,000 - 60,000 

Sold for $63,500

Contact Specialist

Sarah Krueger
Head of Department, Photographs


Vanessa Hallett
Worldwide Head of Photographs and Chairwoman, Americas


New York Auction 11 October 2023