At first glance, the images from the Polarized Color series hardly look like photographs at all. The colors seem impossibly vivid and crisp, and it’s hard to discern any particular tangible subject in front of the lens. But for New York-based, Japanese-born photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, the subject of the images is indeed the colors themselves, both on a visual and intellectual level. After delving into the history of color theory, Sugimoto found himself caught between two ways of understanding color. On the one hand was Newton‘s scientific, seven-color spectrum. On the other, Goethe, whose poetic genius led him to believe that color’s effects on the mind might be the kind of the thing that defies systematic, mechanistic explanation.
Sugimoto, like Goethe, set out to find what was lacking in Newton’s system–namely, to capture the vast, nuanced spectrum of color produced by light, to find everything that exists between those supposedly fixed points represented by red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Refracting beams of light off of mirrors, and into dimly lit black space, Sugimoto used Polaroid film to absorb those countless different hues, effectively taking something impermanent and immaterial and capturing it in a tangible, more permanent object. Pretty gorgeous stuff, and since I’m sure I’m not doing his thought process justice, below, accompanying these images, are some words from Sugimoto himself.
The establishment of cognitively verifiable natural science brought the world closer to the modern age, a world that could be analyzed and quantified. A century after the publication of Opticks, however, criticism of Newton’s mathematical approach was heard from an unexpected quarter: in 1810, poet, novelist and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe compiled a twenty-year study on the effects of color on the human eye, and in his Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors) found Newton’s impersonal scientific exposition wanting on artistic grounds. Granted Newton’s spectrum of seven defractively differentiated colors was perceived by the human eye via the central cortex, but what did that prove?
Colors, he argued, appealed directly to our senses; red and blue had effects upon the human psyche that would not submit to mechanistic quantification. Furthermore, while we perceive light precisely because of darkness, light travelling through the blackness of outer space was imperceptible to the eye; only once light hit the atmosphere and reflected off airborne dust did we see a blue sky. Seeing the darkness tint ultramarine each dawn as I sighted the morning star, I really got a sense of what Goethe wrote in his preface: “Die Farben sind Taten des Lichts, Taten und Leiden.” (“Colors are acts of light, acts and sufferings.”) I interpret this to mean color occurs when light strikes some obstruction, suffering the impact.
Interestingly enough, East Asian Buddhist doctrines use “color” (J. shiki) to refer to the material world, as in the well-known phrase from the Prajnaparamita Sutra (J. Hannya Shingyo): Shiki soku ze ku, ku soku ze shiki “Form is itself void, void is in essence form.” While the original Sanskrit rupa “form” does not refer to color per se, rendering sunyata “void” into the character ku meaning both “emptiness” and “sky” perhaps suggested color as an apt counterpart. Thus, if the visible world of color is essentially empty, then this world is as immaterial as the color of the sky.
Gazing at bright prismatic light each day, I too had my doubts about Newton’s seven-color spectrum: yes, I could see his red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-purple schema, but I could just as easily discern many more different colors in-between, nameless hues of red-to-orange and yellow-to-green. Why must science always cut up the whole into little pieces when it identifies specific attributes? The world is filled with countless colors, so why did natural science insist on just seven? I seem to get a truer sense of the world from those disregarded intracolors. Does not art serve to retrieve what falls through the cracks now that scientific knowledge no longer needs a God? I decided to use virtually obsolete Polaroid film to photograph the spans between colors.
Sunlight travels through black empty space, strikes and suffers my prism, and refracts into an infinite continuum of color. In order to view each hue more clearly, I devised a mirror with a special micro-adjusting tilting mechanism. Projecting the colored beam from a prism onto my mirror, I reflected it into a dim observation chambre where I reduced it to Polaroid colors. Of course, I could further split those prismatic colors by adjusting the angle of that long tall mirror so as to reflect only the hue I want. I could split red into an infinity of reds. Especially when juxtaposed against the dark, each red appears wondrous unto itself. Moreover, colors change constantly. As the sun climbs on its arc, the colors from the prism vary moment by moment. It only takes a few minutes for red to go orange then yellow. Cranking the worm gear by hand to adjust the mirror angle to compensate for the rising sun, I managed to keep the color band within my field of vision.
One morning, I noticed something curious: staring at the band of blue hues with a quiet sense of elation, I shifted my gaze to the white wall and saw yellow. Goethe also studied this phenomena and found that after gazing prolongedly at a single color, the human eye will see an afterimage of the opposite color for a few seconds when looking away. This strange ability to perceive non-existent colors contributes greatly to our aesthetic sense of complementary color harmonies, though look too long at this world and we see an inverted world. It makes me think all the more that “material form is void” and vice-versa.
I thought I had finished this project over a year ago, but I availed myself of the opportunity to buy up the last existing stocks of expired Polaroid film from the final ebb of production. Consistently clear Tokyo winter mornings found me swimming in a sea of colors. 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.