All my life I have made a habit of never believing my eyes ‹ there has never been any guarantee that what I see is actually there. This sense of the insubstantiality of existence has gnawed at me from childhood; I have even come to quite like it. I liken this to the feeling you have when someone interrupts your daydream and you abruptly fall back to earth, wondering where exactly you are. I’ve spent my life shuttling between dreams and reality like that, forging an accomodation of sorts between the two states. Daydreams are the source of all my art. In transforming those dreams inito works of art I do battle with reality, with my camera serving as my boxing gloves in this struggle.
I have taken photographs in natural history museums throughout the United States, and no fewer than five times in New York’s American Museum of Natural History, first in 1976, then in 1980, 1994, 1997, and, most recently, 2012. I can see how the focus of my interest shifted slightly on each occcasion. In 1976, I alwakened to the extraordinary visual qualities of dioramas. The first time I saw a diorama, I was overwhelmed by the fragility of existence that it captured. Being models of nature, dioramas include many of the world¹s constituent parts. The only thing absent is life itself. Time comes to a halt, and never-ending stillness reigns. The dioramas made me think of ancient Egypt, where the dead were mummified and placed in gaudy sarcophagi decorated with likenesses of their inhabitants before setting off on a journey across the sea of time known as Death Eternal, with Isis and Osiris as their guides.
I realized that I too could bring time to a stop. My camera could stop time in the dioramas (where time had already been stopped once) for a second time. Might killing something that was already dead bring it back to life? I thought of myself as an Egyptian grave robber who had forced his way into a tomb. Some of those grave robbers ended up as mummies themselves instead of making off with the treasures sealed inside the tombs. When I am creating a Diorama photograph I am not a mere spectator; I am a part of the unreal world of the diorama. My camera is dead‹ it has the same point of view as the mummified grave robber. Focusing my camera on the motionless polar bear, I felt like an invivisble man. Had I really been standing that close to the bear at the moment when it was poised to swat the seal and sink its teeth into its flesh, I would have been the one to be eaten. In the world of my subjects, time has stopped. I alone have the luxury of time. I felt myself to be looking down on all of history from a great height. At the instant when I pressed the shutter (I say ‘instant,’ but it was actually a 20-minute exposure) I prayed for the bear to come back to life. Then, like an embalmer making up the face of corpse to be lovelier than in life, I set about my postmortem cosmeticizing of the bear.
Excerpt from “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Dioramas.” Copyright © 2014 and reprinted by permission of Daimiani and Matsumo Editions.