Photograph of the Week #1 | Hiroshi Sugimoto: Where Representation Works and Where it Doesn't

Since the early 1970s, Tokyo-born photographer and artist Hiroshi Sugimoto has been concerned with photographic representation of history and how a static image both preserves and captures memory and time. In his ongoing series Portraits, Sugimoto photographs Madame Tussaud’s wax replicas of iconic historical and political figures, including this photograph of Queen Victoria’s wax figure. In the style of an old-master portrait, Sugimoto placed the wax figure of the Queen against a solid black background and used a 9-minute exposure to capture the detail of the clothing and the life-like expression of the figure’s face.

The source of the Madam Tussaud’s wax figure was a photograph of Queen Victoria, circa her 1897 Diamond Jubilee celebration.  What’s presented then in Sugimoto’s photograph is an illusion (a photograph of a realistic wax figure) of an illusion (the wax figure itself), a double reproduction of the actual Queen herself.

Yet this photograph almost conveys the same emotional charge and recognition of a photo-portrait of an actual person. What does it mean then for a photograph to be hyperrealistic? Sugimoto uses both conventions of portraiture, the suggested eye contact and the figure’s straight-on pose, as well as the viewer’s familiarity with the Queen’s likeness to create one image that is both familiarizing and de-familiarizing at the same time. That is the uncanny quality of this photograph -- the Queen here looks very real to us but not alive.  

Sugimoto’s aim is not to just critique contemporary culture’s fascination with icons and their images or to undermine the truth-value of a photograph —rather, he shows subtly where representation works in a photograph and where it doesn’t.