Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Portraits Bring the Dead Back to Life

 

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Norma Shearer, 1994. All photos courtesy of Damiani.

 

Hiroshi Sugimoto has spent a career photographing fictions. When he moved to New York from Japan in 1974, by way of Los Angeles, he intended to find work as a wedding photographer. Instead, he took his camera to the Museum of Natural History, where he developed a lifelong fascination with dioramas. He photographed the taxidermy there, already frozen in their meticulously staged tableaux, and, as he writes, “I realized that I too could bring time to a stop. My camera could stop time in the dioramas—where time had already been halted once—for a second time.” This doubling of perspective, which has since become a signature of Sugimoto’s work, can produce unexpected and uncanny transformations: a 1976 photo from his “Dioramas” series, for example, shows a stuffed polar bear on a faux icescape, looming over a seal, its teeth bared, as though ready to strike. Twice removed from its natural setting, the scene unfreezes. It could easily be confused for a photo of a real bear, a real icescape. “My life as an artist began,” Sugimoto writes, “when I saw with my own eyes that I had succeeded in bringing the bear back to life on film.”

Sugimoto achieves similar feats in his latest collection, “Portraits,” which will publish this month. For this series, Sugimoto traveled to the Madame Tussauds wax museums in London and Amsterdam, where he selected subjects that span some two thousand years of history. As in his Diorama series, the imposition of photographic distance has a kind of embalming effect on Sugimoto’s subjects, rendered somehow more lifelike in the act of preservation. “Photographs,” Susan Sontag once wrote, “are a way of imprisoning reality.” But in Portraits, Sugimoto uses his camera to opposite effect, creating counterfeit realities that give history back to the dead: “However fake the subject,” he writes, “once photographed, it’s as good as real.”Spencer Bokat-Lindell

 

Napoleon Bonaparte, 1999.

 

Elizabeth Taylor, 1994.

 

Fidel Castro, 1999.

 

Henry VIII, 1999.

 

Salvador Dali, 1999.

 

Excerpted from Portraits, by Hiroshi Sugimoto © 2018. Reprinted with permission from Damiani and MW Editions.

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