Critics’ Picks

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Polar Bear, 1976, gelatin silver print, dimensions variable.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Polar Bear, 1976, gelatin silver print, dimensions variable.

Los Angeles

Hiroshi Sugimoto

The Getty Center
1200 Getty Center Drive
February 4–June 8, 2014

The thirty photographs in this show by Hiroshi Sugimoto fall into three categories: “Dioramas,” “Portraits,” and “Photogenic Drawings.” For the latter, a selection of eleven recent works, Sugimoto drew from William Henry Fox Talbot’s archives at the Getty, which he visited in 2009. The works’ inclusion in the show, among photographs that reconsider the preciousness of museum displays, makes for an apt kind of homecoming. By copying and distorting museum archives of prephotography, then presenting them in that same museum, Sugimoto achieves a cunning short circuit in which the record, not the artist or the machine, remains at the center of the photograph.

In Sugimoto's well-known diorama photographs, taken at such institutions as the American Museum of Natural History, he reveals the affectedness of our elegiac and sentimental viewing of these images. A polar bear roars over his just-caught prey, and a manatee swims through a sun-dappled sea; however, these images were taken of displays only passively encountered, not of scenes staged or caught by the photographer. His too-flattering Renaissance portraits, on closer inspection, have achieved their smooth contours not by lighting or angles, but from the waxen surfaces of replicas. Sugimoto challenges the eye to more carefully discern what actually lived, after it is rendered static by the camera. The photographs strip away sentient factors other than the hand of the photographer.

Talbot’s exercises similarly sought to remove that hand. He achieved his photogenic drawings by coating paper with solutions that, when left in sunlight, revealed the flattened shapes of objects such as leaves; he later captured images using a camera obscura, whose long exposures produced the first negatives. Sugimoto picks up this narrative by photographing, enlarging, and coloring the same images. In Roofline of Lacock Abbey, ca. 1835–1839, 2008, architecture eludes figuration. The building appears more like a natural phenomenon than a man-made structure. Rather than offer the artist’s clearly delineated view, the image documents the natural light that filtered the image through time. Sugimoto’s enhancements emphasize these processes rather than the pictures themselves.