Photographer Celebrates 40 Years of Making Dioramas Seem Real

Illustration for article titled Photographer Celebrates 40 Years of Making Dioramas Seem Real

Photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto first visited the American Museum of Natural History in 1974 and has returned four times since to add to his "Dioramas" series of photos. With his skill, Sugimoto makes the exhibits appear like nature shots.

On his website, Sugimoto explains how he was first inspired by AMNH's animal displays:

Upon first arriving in New York in 1974, I did the tourist thing. 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.

Illustration for article titled Photographer Celebrates 40 Years of Making Dioramas Seem Real

During Sugimoto's last session in the museum, in 2012, the New York Times was on hand to observe his process. Which involved cheap ninja costumes:

First, weaving through patrons, the assistants had to erect tall frames for black curtains that cloaked the chosen dioramas, to eliminate reflection on the glass. Then Mr. Sugimoto set up his beloved R. H. Phillips and Sons 8x10 camera inside the curtains, focused it and took Polaroid film test shots, which he examined painstakingly in the beam of a spotlight shining down on the nearby bust of a long-dead botanist.

When the shutter was finally snapped, for exposures lasting as long as five minutes, the work was sometimes not even then at an end. In one diorama, "Timberline in the Northern Rocky Mountains," a permanent spotlight shining on a painted cloud bank was too bright and would have marred the exposure.

So an assistant, Hiroshi Sumiyama, got inside the curtains, dressed head-to-toe in solid black — a cheap Halloween ninja costume that everyone on the team, including Mr. Sugimoto, wore that day to eliminate the possibility of reflection. Holding up a black pole, he energetically waved a placard attached to the top of the pole during the length of the three-and-a-half-minute exposure, to "dodge" down the brightness of the clouds in a way that is usually done in the darkroom.

Because he was reflecting no light and constantly moving — it looked like a kind of hopped-up ceremonial dance — his form would not show up on the picture, though his darkening efforts would. "Ritual over," Mr. Sugimoto said, after the shutter snapped closed. In his ninja suit, he added, deadpanning: "I'm inviting the spirits into my photography. It's an act of God."

Below, there's a video from AMNH showing not only Sugimoto at work, but explaining how the exhibits themselves went up. Sugimoto comments that museum workers went to real places, took photos, and then built the dioramas based on those photos. And now that he's re-photographing the displays based on the original photos which creates "many layers of transformation."

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Maybe the scans are poor, or I'm missing something by not seeing the prints in-person, but the tonal curve looks very flat to my eye. There's no deep shadows and the highlights appear muddy in both the photos embedded above.

I do like the concept and, maybe, seeing the photos in-person will be a better experience.

Two side notes:

  • I'm amused by the New York Times' description of what is essentially dodging in the real world.
  • The diorama lighting in the American Museum of Natural History is universally awful, save for the few that have recently had lighting upgrades at huge expense — those few dioramas (particularly the scenes in the Rockies) feel 'real.' The remainder feel as though you've stepped back into the 1960s.