In his “Portraits” series, Tokyo-born, New York City-based artist Hiroshi Sugimoto created what appear to be painting-like photographs, in stark black-and-white, of such figures as Pope John Paul II, Fidel Castro, and Yasser Arafat as well as, quite impossibly, Henry VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Rembrandt. The long-exposure pictures were actually taken of figures from wax museums, set against a dark background to take them out of historical context. In his ongoing “Dioramas” series, Sugimoto similarly plays with reality, as what at first seem to be beautifully composed deep-focus shots of living, breathing nature scenes turn out to be photographs of dioramas of fake trees, painted mountains, and taxidermied animals taken in natural history museums. Seventeen of the stunning photographs are on view in “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Still Life,” running through June 28 at Pace’s 510 West 25th St. gallery.
“Upon first arriving in New York in 1974, I did the tourist thing,” Sugimoto points out on his website. “Eventually I visited the Natural History Museum, where I made a curious discovery: the stuffed animals positioned before painted backdrops looked utterly fake, yet by taking a quick peek with one eye closed, all perspective vanished, and suddenly they looked very real. I’d found a way to see the world as a camera does. However fake the subject, once photographed, it’s as good as real.” The inviting pictures look very real indeed, from groups of wapiti, California condors, and South Georgian penguins to several lush forests. The most dazzling of the silver gelatin prints features a manatee floating just above some rocks, rays of sunlight breaking through the surface of the water, bathing the fascinating creature in an otherworldly glow. It practically makes you want to tap the glass to get the large mammal’s attention. Sugimoto, who was just awarded the Isamu Noguchi Award for Kindred Spirits in Innovation, Global Consciousness, and Japanese/American Exchange, has also explored the nature of how we visually interpret what we see in such other series as “Seascapes,” “Theaters,” and “Lightning Fields”; in “Dioramas,” he again makes the viewer question what is real while examining the very meaning of “still life” in his own special way.