Visual Culture
The Artists Turning Famous Photographs into Elaborate Dioramas
Cortis & Sonderegger, Making of “Tsunami” (by unknown tourist, 2004), 2015. © Cortis & Sonderegger. Courtesy of Cortis & Sonderegger.

Cortis & Sonderegger, Making of “Tsunami” (by unknown tourist, 2004), 2015. © Cortis & Sonderegger. Courtesy of Cortis & Sonderegger.

In November 2011, ’s Rhein II (1999) auctioned for $4.3 million, the most expensive photograph ever sold in auction. In 2012, Swiss photographers , who were having a slow summer in between commissioned work, thought it might be fun to try to recreate the piece. “We had no money coming in and nothing to do,” Cortis recalls, “so we had the idea to copy the most expensive photographs in the world.”
The duo painstakingly recreated the abstract image of the Rhine River near Düsseldorf, Germany, as a miniature 3D model in their studio. They cast light across an expanse of cotton-ball clouds, a plastic-wrap river, and felt grass, shooting a photograph that mimicked the original composition. But the artists realized it was not interesting enough to just copy the work, so they widened the frame, revealing some of the materials used in their remake: a pair of scissors, rolls of tape, a paintbrush, staple gun, and crumpled paper. Cortis and Sonderegger titled the final piece Making of ‘Rhein II’ (by Andreas Gursky, 1999) (2012); it would become the first of a series of reimagined “Icons”—dozens of handmade dioramas of famous photographs by the likes of and , as well as images of historically significant events such as World War II, the Wright Brothers’ flight experiments, and 9/11.
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Cortis and Sonderegger first met in art school in the early 2000s, and they’ve been working together ever since. When asked which of the two took a particular photograph, they reply that it’s not important who fired the shutter; the art is in the collaborative process.
Of course, the two can’t be of a single mind all the time. They do, at times, disagree on what an “iconic” photograph looks like. Sonderegger says it’s impossible to define what “iconic” means to them, though there are pivotal moments. “Every country, generation, and culture has its own iconic images. We know where we were when we heard about 9/11, and my parents remember watching the moon landing on TV,” he says.
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So far, “Icons” contains 45 works, some of which are currently on view at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York. (The artists also have a new book out, Double Take: The World’s Most Iconic Photographs Re-created in Miniature.) Cortis and Sonderegger are currently working on their 46th set, Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Terror of War (1974), an image of children and soldiers fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.
To create their sets, Cortis and Sonderegger use materials like paper, paint, tape, and twine, molding humans from clay and shaping clouds from cotton balls. Each scene requires adjustments and reshoots: They take a thousand photographs of any single one before dismantling it and moving onto the next. The sets range in size—some of them four feet tall by five feet wide—and because the light and perspective is so important, they’re often very deep, taking up the entire studio space. The whole process has a theatricality that matches some of their subjects; among their pieces, the artists have remade photographs from classic films, like Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blowing up in The Seven Year Itch.
Cortis & Sonderegger, “Making of Seated Female Nude”  (by Eugene Delacroix, 1854), 2017. © Cortis & Sonderegger. Courtesy of Cortis & Sonderegger.

Cortis & Sonderegger, “Making of Seated Female Nude” (by Eugene Delacroix, 1854), 2017. © Cortis & Sonderegger. Courtesy of Cortis & Sonderegger.

Cortis & Sonderegger, Making of “Death of a Loyalist Militaman, Córdoba Front, Spain” (by Robert Capa, 1936), 2016.

Cortis & Sonderegger, Making of “Death of a Loyalist Militaman, Córdoba Front, Spain” (by Robert Capa, 1936), 2016.

Cortis and Sonderegger work on a single piece at a time, each one taking from three weeks to three or four months to complete. They reuse any materials they can for the next set. “We have a big bag of clouds,” Cortis notes.
People often ask Cortis and Sonderegger if they display their sets along with their finished photographs, but the artists stress that not only would this be fully impractical due to their size, but it also wouldn’t be very impressive. “Our sets only work from one perspective,” Cortis says—and the lighting has to be just right to create the full effect. The sets are also very fragile: Cortis and Sonderegger have arrived at their studio to find that pieces have fallen out of place overnight. (They have, however, exhibited videos of their intensive process.)
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Cortis and Sonderegger see themselves as conceptual photographers; by showing what lies just beyond the edges of their sets, they bring to the forefront the precarious connection between photography and truth. Many of their recreations are of photojournalism images, but the pair is also fascinated with conspiracy theories, leading to the inclusion of the famously faked photograph of the fabled Loch Ness monster. The notion of truth in imagery plays into the importance of showing how the works are made, even though they use photography and scale to fool the eye. “You can trick the viewer, but we don’t want to cheat them,” Sonderegger says. He muses: “Do you believe what you see? Is photography showing the truth?”
Elena Goukassian