“However fake the subject, once photographed, it’s as good as real.”

Those are the words of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who’s exhibition I checked out today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Sugimoto’s black and white photographs were delightfully unlike anything I’ve ever seen done with a camera before, and more than once I caught myself smiling at his insight into his subjects.

BearThe entire collection consists of a series of large (around 4 by 6 feet), black and white photographs, separated by theme into a number of galleries. It opens with a series called “Dioramas,” which are photos taken of displays in some of New York’s natural history museums. When he first moved to New York in the 1970s, Sugimoto spent a lot of time wandering around the city’s museums. He was struck by how fake the three dimensional displays of animals in their various habitats with painted backgrounds appeared to the human eye. By closing one eye, he discovered that all perspective vanished and the displays seemed more life-like. From even a close distance, his photographs of a polar bear and its kill, or a group of carrion birds feasting on a carcass in the savanna appear indescribably real.

All of Sugimoto’s “Portraits” were taken in Madam Tussaud’s Wax Musuem in London, and through his camera’s lens these wax figures take on a degree of realness that is impossible to believe without actually standing in front of them. One room of the gallery features a very large, and very real-looking image of Henry the VIII, flanked on both sides and three walls by photographs of all six of his wives. But it gets better. The wax figure of Henry was based on a methodical study of portraits painted in the 16th century by Flemish artist Hans Holbein the Younger. Sugimoto conducted extensive research into lighting techniques used by painters of the period, applied them to the wax figure at Madam Tussaud’s and shot. The result is spectacular. From real life, to canvas, to wax, and then back to real life again.

TheatreThe rest of the collection departs somewhat from his theme of fake can be just as good, but in no way dissapoints. The series titled, “Theatres” is a number of smaller black and white shots taken inside darkened movie theatres or at drive-ins during the screening of a film. Sugimoto left his camera’s shutter open for the entire duration of the film, essentially capturing the entire film in a single shot. The contrast between the darkened interior of the theatres, many with classical design on the walls and ceilings, and the bright, white rectangular void of the glowing screen is haunting.

Sea of Japan“Seascapes” occupies the entire length of a long, darkened gallery that gently curves along the Hirshhorn’s rounded design. Each image is illiuminated individually by bright lights in the ceiling. Viewing the photos while sitting on one of the sofas in the gallery is almost like staring out many windows onto misty seascape horizons. The shots were taken of various seas around the globe (image to the right is of the Sea of Japan), at different times of day, so that the contrast between sea and sky vary from barely distinguishable, with the horizon line fading into each, to lightness and darkness that are as clear as day and night.

BuddhaThe adjacent gallery features the series, “Sea of Buddha,” which is a panorama constructed of forty eight photographs of the thousand and one Kannon statues in the Sanjusangen-do Temple in Kyoto. Sugimoto waited through seven long years of red tape perhaps only the Japanese are capable of serving up before he was allowed to shoot inside the temple. Prior to doing so, he had all non-period items removed from the room and the electric lights turned off so that the figures would reflect the morning sunlight filtering in from Higashiyama. Like “Seascapes” here too the gallery is darkened, with only the panorama lit, and curves along the wall of the building. Again, the effect is stunning.

There is of course more on display, and I strongly encourage any of our DC readers to get to the Hirschhorn as soon as possible and have a look at this man’s work. It’s free, open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m, and on display until May 14th.