It’s 1978, and photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto pays for a ticket to see a movie at the Walker Theatre in Brooklyn. The theater is one of many ornate movie palaces that American businessmen built in the 1920s when, fresh from the horrors of World War I, the U.S. economy was roaring, and audiences wanted venues steeped in grandeur and opulence. The Walker Theatre is still a marvel in the late ’70s, its interior swathed with latticework, columns, and overhangs that seem covered in jewels. But the crowds are already thinning, and when Sugimoto arrives, the ticket-taker doesn’t realize this new patron is sneaking in a large-format camera.
Sugimoto goes to the balcony, sets up his camera, and just before the film starts, opens the shutter — which lets in all the available light. He keeps the shutter open at the widest aperture for the next two hours, closing it only when the movie ends. The result is a time-compressed, black-and-white image that shows a glowing screen and a theater — without people — bathed in the shadows of that same luminescence. Moody and unforgettable, Sugimoto’s image of the Walker Theatre becomes part of a series of similar theater setups that help establish Sugimoto as a creator of scenes imbued with profound meaning.
Here’s the thing: The Walker Theatre doesn’t exist anymore, shuttering in 1988 to become what is now a discount women’s clothing store that gets derogatory reviews on social media because of its service and upkeep (“a horrible experience,” wrote one recent reviewer). And Sugimoto himself has moved on. Now, he’s photographing movie palaces that are in a limbo state of disrepair and abandonment — places like the Paramount Theater in Newark, N.J., that have been unused for decades while they wait for development; or places like the Michigan Theater in Detroit, whose once-grand husk exists only as part of a parking garage.
Taking the same kind of time-compressed images he did before, Sugimoto makes the old spaces glow again by projecting films onto their crumbled screens (or putting up temporary screens himself). In these new photos — on display at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery — decay and blight intersect with new heavenly light. Like some kind of photographic god, Sugimoto is bringing the past back to life, even if those excavations stir up bittersweet feelings of nostalgia or even pain.
On the surface, “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Remains to Be Seen” is about the death of historic single-screen theaters, but Sugimoto’s work is always about more than the literal surface of his camera’s gaze. In other series, Sugimoto has devoted considerable time to scenes of flickering candles, lightning fields, seascapes, horizons, and waxed figures of Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, and the scene of a hanging. His photography asks people to contemplate mortality and transcendence and humanity’s search for higher truths. Time — the passage of time, the vagaries of time, the reconciliation of time — is an underlying theme.
“They are all interrelated conceptually,” Sugimoto, 68, has said of his projects.
In popular culture, Sugimoto may be best known for U2’s use of his seascape image for the band’s 2009 release, No Line on the Horizon. Among Sugimoto’s many honors is the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, an annual prize worth 1 million Swiss kroner (about $115,000) that has also been given to Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cindy Sherman, and Sebastião Salgado.
Sugimoto’s photos at Fraenkel Gallery are all 5-feet-by-6-feet — big enough to envelop the art-goer and bring people into the figurative last rows of these once-great theaters. The “remains” in the exhibit’s title can be thought of either as the noun that means “dead parts” or as the verb that’s a synonym for defiantly sticking around. It may be both. Death and life are intertwined, linked in photos that reduce a cinema screening into a single image.
The distinct ravages of neglect and time are everywhere in “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Remains to Be Seen,” and some of the theaters look like they’ve been bombed. To create the glowing effect, Sugimoto chose different films for different theaters. At New Jersey’s decimated Paramount Theater, Sugimoto screened a 1959 film about nuclear war and its desperate aftermath, On the Beach, which stars Gregory Peck as a submarine commander in search of survivors in San Francisco and elsewhere. The end could be near, that film suggests, but life goes on as people still search for love and meaning. Theaters like the Paramount once provided an elegant escape from the “real world.” With Sugimoto’s latest photo series, that role has become discombobulated. There is no escape. At least for the time being.
At her solo art exhibition at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, Sadie Barnette steps back from her own life — and from that of her father, Rodney Barnette, who founded the Black Panthers’ Compton, Calif., chapter — and gives it a big-picture perspective and a very small one.
We see pages of formerly secret FBI files that target her father for his activity in the Panthers, and which Sadie Barnette has since tinged with pink and black. We see a yellowing 1971 letter that Rodney Barnette wrote about his support for Angela Davis, who was then facing trial for her alleged involvement in a Marin County courtroom shooting that left four people dead. And we see photos of families and friends who link both Rodney and Sadie Barnette to particular neighborhoods in Oakland and Compton.
“Sadie Barnette: From Here” features iterations of work that she also has in “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50,” the exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California that examines the Panthers’ history and social impact. With her art, Barnette zeroes in on the joy and humor that exists in political families — or at least in hers. “Dear 1968,” she writes in one framed work, “Love 1984.” The first year is a key year in the Panthers’ existence. The second year is the year she was born — the daughter of people who were grounded in the Panthers’ philosophies but also many others, including what she calls “disco idealism.” Nice.
“Hiroshi Sugimoto: Remains to Be Seen” Through Oct. 22 at Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St., S.F. Free; 415-981-2661 or fraenkelgallery.com.
“Sadie Barnette: From Here” Through Oct. 29 at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, 464 Sutter St., S.F. Free; 415-677-0770 or jenkinsjohnsongallery.com.