Hiroshi Sugimoto: Four Decades of Photographing Dioramas

The photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto has visited to the Museum four times in the past four decades to shoot his “Dioramas” series, which focuses on habitat displays to explore the distinction between the real and the fictive.

What initially surprised Sugimoto about the series was that his photos looked utterly real–as if he were photographing on location, and not in front of a three-dimensional representation of a real location. Part of this effect can be credited to Sugimoto’s talent as a photographer, but the effect wouldn’t be possible without the skill of the Museum’s diorama artists, who blended science and nature to create the illusion of reality. Using the latest technology, they constructed the foreground, taxidermy, and painted background of a diorama to reflect that of the original site.

Not lost on Sugimoto is the fact that when Museum preparators made collecting trips to diorama sites, they documented the area with photographs, which they referred to when they went back to the Museum and brought the dioramas to life.

“Now I’m re-photographing the diorama, based on the photography,” the artist said. “So many layers of transformation–that’s very conceptually interesting.”

During a 2012 shoot of the Olympic Forest diorama in the Hall of North American Forests, Sugimoto explained why he keeps coming back to the Museum.

“I have my ideas and visions of what nature should look like. So I’m using this diorama to represent my idealistic visions of nature.”

Known as “Windows on Nature,” the Museum’s habitat dioramas are recognized internationally as premier examples of the fusion of art and science. The lifelike displays were created to educate the public about nature and science and also engender feelings of wonder for the natural world.

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For his latest round of photographs, the artist used his trademark 8 x 10 large-format camera to explore the theme of lost nature, or what the earth would look like if human civilization vanished.

The first photographs from the “Dioramas” series, shot in 1976, brought Sugimoto to acclaim. “Dioramas” continues to gain an audience today with recent exhibitions at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Pace Gallery in New York.

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