Hiroshi Sugimoto’s: Past Tense Diane Arbus once said, “A picture isn’t reality – it’s a secret about a secret. And the more it tells you the less you know.” From a Selfie on Facebook, to the seductive model in a magazine, to the smiling family beaming up at you from a holiday card, the real question is: Are the images we see truthful?
For nearly four decades photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto has been exploring this very question.
Sugimoto sees photography as a form of fossilization of time. For him photographs are an imprint memory of the time record. Working with a 19th century-style large format camera (that looks like an accordion perched on a tripod) he manipulates light through exposure lengths and prints everything on fiber based gelatin silver prints. The result is an ultra precise, stunning reality. But is it a reality we can trust?
Take his Polar Bear. It looks so real, we marvel not only at the stark beauty of the image, but at the intrepid nature photographer who had the courage to brave the Arctic cold and the close proximity to the polar bear. Yet nothing about this photograph is truthful. There was no witness to this scene. Sugimoto has constructed a narrative that never happened. The polar bear and the seal exist in a diorama in New York’s Museum of Natural History. Sugimoto manipulated the perspective and the light and the result was a completely different reality.
Sugimoto plays on this theme with his portraits. Henry VIII and his wives look so alive it’s almost creepy. It's an unsettling feeling when you realize that they are really photographs of wax figures. Then you start to consider the entire process: The wax figures were crafted from Hans Holbein paintings, and Sugimoto didn't just photograph them, he recreated the renaissance lighting that Holbein would have worked under. Sugimoto practically travels back in time, yet the images he creates are three times removed from the sitters. The realism of the images is a fiction, and so is the narrative. We all know what happened to Henry and his wives and these photos don’t even begin to convey any of those truths.
And that might just be the point. We can't trust what we're seeing. But Sugimoto wants to show us one more example before he let's us go.
In 2007, Sugimoto came to the Getty to study some of the earliest photographs ever taken. He photographed the negatives and blew them up, adding tint to recreate the hue of the original paper. The resulting photogenic drawings are dreamy and mythical and probably much closer to a photographic truth than we might think. They remind us that photography blurs reality and erases perspective. Photography tricks and deceives.
And that might be the only Truth we can ever know about a photograph. It’s certainly something to consider next time you look at someone’s selfie, or find yourself envying the sultry supermodel or the perfect family on that holiday greeting card.
If you’re in Los Angeles you can check out Sugimoto’s PAST TENSE at the Getty Museum through June 8th.
To learn more about photography New York’s ICP often has interesting exhibits.
Ian Jeffrey’s How to Read a Photograph is also worth checking out for a broad overview.
Do you find yourself getting drawn into false narratives when you scroll through photos on Facebook? Do you understand photographs as "real" or fiction?