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A Voyage of Seeing: On Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes

Interpreting the Collection


Beneath the still waters of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes lie stories of movement, migration, and homeland.

Hiroshi Sugimoto

When I encountered these photographs of the ocean and its horizon, I was confronted by a sea of seascapes, if you will. In each of these black and white photographs, the horizon line that separates the water from the sky bifurcates the scene. Despite similarities in composition, the photographs are each unique, as differences in times of day, weather conditions, and available light become apparent. These minimal images are devoid of any signifiers that would point to a specific location. In their place, the titles and dates of the photographs clearly identify their locations.

Sugimoto’s Seascapes photographs have always reminded me of the people who have crossed their waters. In fact, Sugimoto writes of the series: “Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing.” The sea acts as a liminal, in-between space of voyage for diasporic peoples and, as a result, is oftentimes where these migrants find comfort and homeland.

Sugimoto was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, then moved to California to study photography at the Art Center College of Design and later settled in New York City. For him to find an ancestral home in the sea is a powerful choice that rejects strong identifications with national borders. His identification with the sea is as a space of constant motion in between multiple cultural spheres. If in-betweenness is what defines diasporic peoples, then the ocean provides a perfect subject for the diasporic artist. Oceans can serve as spaces where identity continually shifts, challenging fixed notions of nationality and homeland.

One of the ambiguities in studying diasporas is that diasporic communities can be found everywhere in the world, yet they are never tied to a single location. Similarly, what I find interesting about oceans is that while they can be contested zones between countries, they simultaneously belong to no one and everyone, existing as international waters. Sugimoto’s photographs reinforce these paradoxes in their simultaneous state of specificity and non-specificity. Given the title of a work, we can locate the photograph to a specific place on a map, but given just the photograph, the scene appears as though it could be found anywhere in the world. 

In rendering each of the photographs in his series so similar to one another and without any contextual information that would suggest location, Sugimoto’s Seascapes points to the failure of photography to provide us with any useful information about a specific time and place. Without captions, the photographs simply read as aesthetic objects; they reject the expectation that photography should provide concrete information that might be useful for specifying location. In this way, Sugimoto’s use of the camera image might also amplify conversations surrounding diaspora’s challenging of strict borders, as the photographs themselves shift between feelings of location and dislocation.

Sugimoto specifically notes that he sees not just home in the sea but ancestral home, as he honors the histories that the ocean, and landscapes more generally, contain. Like all photographs, the photographs of Seascapes freeze a moment in time. Yet in this frozen moment of time, longer histories coalesce, as oceans have been constant sites of both voluntary and involuntary migration for centuries. Sugimoto’s photographs, despite their simplicity and stillness, remind us that each specific sea identified in each photograph holds memories of movement, and we in turn inherit those histories.

Hiroshi Sugimoto

I myself am the daughter of two Chinese immigrants who settled in the United States in the 1990s. I was born and raised in a land-locked city in Texas, where I rarely encountered the ocean. And yet, like Sugimoto, when I view the sea, even just photographs of the sea, I feel as though I am visiting my ancestral home. My life has been marked by waves of migration that I myself have not experienced but which affect the way that I move in the world. So in the spirit of Sugimoto’s photographs, I too embark on a voyage of seeing.

—Grace Xiao, McMullan Arts Leadership Intern, Publishing



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