It’s difficult to summarize the work of an artist as prolific and restlessly curious as photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. But in many of his series, he has examined the subject of time. To make his images of theaters, he kept the shutter of his large-format camera open for the entire length of a movie, creating a frame in which the screen becomes a glowing square in the middle of the dark, cavernous space. In “Lightning Fields,” his homage to 18th century scientific exploration, he managed to freeze the instantaneous flash of an electrical charge as it skittered across photo-sensitive paper. For his first and ongoing series “Dioramas,” he has photographed inside several natural history museums, showing the models museums have created to depict the life of our prehistoric ancestors. His eerily realistic images of Neanderthals strolling across the savannah manage to compress into a single frame prehistoric time, the not-too-distant work of paleontologists and anthropologists, and the moment he shot the picture.
His new book, Portraits, also looks at how history is envisioned. Nearly all the photos in the book depict wax figures. I, for one, find wax figures creepy. But in Sugimoto’s images, elegantly lit and shot against black backdrops, the figures become surprisingly lifelike. Some of the wax statues he photographed depict people we recognize from news footage—Princess Diana and Fidel Castro, for example. But most depict historic figures—such as Napoleon, Henry VIII and Shakespeare—whom we know only from paintings or illustrations.
The book plays with the real and the imagined, mixing Sugimoto’s portraits of living people among his images of wax tableaux depicting scenes from old movies and TV shows. It also includes a five-panel, black-and-white photo of what appears at first glance to be Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” but is a wax facsimile, complete with fading and worn patches, that Sugimoto found in a Japanese museum. Sugimoto manages to transform these kitschy objects into conceptual art that inspires us to consider the nature of representation.
—Holly Stuart Hughes
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Portraits
Text by Maria Hambourg
and Hiroshi Sugimoto
Damiana and MW Editions