NEW YORK — Hiroshi Sugimoto's lush photo portraits of Henry VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte, Voltaire and Jesus are too good to be true.
The photos, all black and white, are crisp, clear and larger than life. But most of Sugimoto's carefully posed subjects were dead, of course, long before the age of photography.
In "Sugimoto: Portraits," on view at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo through Nov. 10, Sugimoto succeeds in melting perceptions of reality.
His basic premise is simple: He spent more than 20 years visiting and photographing the world's wax museums. Focusing on Madame Tussaud's in London, its branch in Amsterdam and a wax museum in Ito, Japan, Sugimoto took three-quarter view photos, using 8-by-10-inch negatives, of the most realistic wax figures. They are typically taken against a black background.
But there is much more to it than that. Before hunkering down behind his camera, Sugimoto dug through archives to trace the wax figures back to the paintings on which most of them were based, and then replicated the brush strokes, shadows and other painterly qualities of the works.
The reflections of light in Henry VIII's gemstone buttons, for example, are reminiscent of the skilled brush strokes of Hans Holbein the Younger. And a photo of a wax scene imitating Johannes Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" seems to exactly replicate the painting--until you notice an inside joke. The mirror reflects the legs of Sugimoto's camera tripod instead of the base of an easel, as in the painting.
"There are really clever and funny layers of reproduction. You go from real person to painting to wax figure to photograph. It's like this collapsing reality," said Tracey Bashkoff, who helped organize the show.
Bashkoff said those viewing the photos for the first time generally have a hard time recognizing the subjects as wax figures.
"When you see a real wax figure, it looks somewhat artificial because the color is not quite there. But when you see it in a black-and-white photograph, it's kind of tricky. People aren't sure if they're photos of actors in costume or what they are. Or are they photographs of a painting?" she said.
Sugimoto clearly enjoys his plays on perception.
"You have the feeling that you're looking at someone's photograph and not a wax figure," he said.
"A photograph automatically gives you the illusion that it might be the real thing. It's a psychological game."
The success of this particular game depends on the quality of the wax figure, and Sugimoto said he chose his subjects based mainly on how realistic they looked.
"I've been studying wax figures for almost 25 years, and started by photographing natural history museum dioramas. I have seen many tacky wax museums around the world," he said. "Madame Tussaud's in London is the best .... Actually, 99% of wax museums are bad.
"I chose the figures for their quality, but I also included my favorites," he said, pausing before a 25-foot-long work that appears to be a photo of Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper.
"If the wax figures aren't realistic, I can try to make them more realistic in my photographs. Here it seems a little like there was a photographer at the Last Supper, but, of course, I'm not old enough to have photographed that," he said, smiling.
"There are more details here than in the [Leonardo] Da Vinci. Most of it is hard to see in the actual painting, which has deteriorated. If Da Vinci were alive, perhaps he could copy this."
Asked what he plans to do next, Sugimoto is silent for a moment.
"Maybe in the future I'll try to take a picture of a live one and make it look as waxy as possible," he joked.
Thirty-four of his photo portraits are included in the show, which is not scheduled to travel beyond New York. Slightly smaller versions of the exhibit previously appeared at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin and at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
The show is accompanied by a fully illustrated $60 hardcover catalog published by the Guggenheim and distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. The hefty book includes scholarly essays as well as a long interview with the artist.