Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Birds of Japan

Sindy Chen

Using a medium format glass-plate camera that gestures back to the photographic processes of the late nineteenth century, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s meticulously composed and exposed black-and-white photographs explore questions of representation, perception, and temporality. Themes of time, perception, and preservation unite his various photographic series, from his diorama series to his long-exposure photographs of cinema theatres, from his photographs of wax figures to his recreations of Henry Fox Talbot’s photogenic drawings. The work featured in this exhibition, Birds of Japan (1994) comes from Sugimoto’s “Dioramas” series, a decades-long project in which the artist photographed the displays of the American Museum of Natural History in New York (fig. 1). In this essay, I will examine how Sugimoto’s photograph encourages us to attend to the way our visual perception is constantly mediated, whether by the physical dispositif of the museum space documented within the photographs or the camera itself. Moreover, by engaging with these mediations, Sugimoto (re)creates a utopian environment that is both lost and imagined.

Hiroshi Sugimoto was born in Japan in 1948. He studied politics and sociology at the Rikkyō University in Tokyo, where he read German philosophers like Hegel and Kant, as well as Marxist and Socialist theories. In 1974, he began his training as an artist at Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles. He arrived in the U.S. at the height of the Flower Children Movement, and it was then he delved into Zen and Eastern philosophy. He now divides his time between Tokyo and New York City. Although he has primarily worked as a photographer since the 1970s, Sugimoto more recently added performing arts production and architecture to his multidisciplinary practice. He also leads the Tokyo-based architectural firm New Material Research Laboratory.[1]

Much has changed in the world of photography since Roland Barthes’ famous discussion of photography in Camera Lucida (1980), where he states, “I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past,”[2] which he defines as the essence of ‘photography’ as such. As scholars and critics have grappled with the shift from analogue to digital imaging technologies, analogue photography has often been proposed as offering a truth that the manipulability of digital photographer questions. Sugimoto’s work, however, complicates this simplistic dichotomy by prompting his viewers question the foundations of our belief in the “reality” of analogue photography and its connection the time and history. As a photographer intimately familiar with historical imaging processes, Sugimoto is highly conscious of photography’s ability to trick the eye with an impression of truthfulness and the degree of mediation and manipulation that goes into the production of photographic images. In his diorama series, he utilizes these aspects to at once evoke and question the timeless and utopian landscapes depicted in the natural history museum.

The diorama series feature photographs shot in natural history museums across the US over four decades. In this series, Sugimoto focused on the museums’ diorama displays, which feature taxidermy animals and sculptural replicas of environmental details like grass, rocks, and vegetation situated against elaborate painted backgrounds. By removing the discursive and architectural framework that surrounds the dioramas when viewed in situ, Sugimoto’s photographs instills his subjects—the dioramas themselves, more than the animals that appear within them—with an uncanny realism that allows his photographs to pass, on first glance, for wildlife photography. The collision of taxidermy and photography, both historically understood as a means of capturing and preserving the natural world, draws attention to the mediation and construction of “Nature” as a category. Acknowledging the historical kinship of photography and the natural history diorama, Sugimoto refers to his process of photographing natural history dioramas as “re-photography .”[3]

Birds of Japan

Fig. 1. Hiroshi Sugimoto, Birds of Japan. 1994, gelatin silver print. Purchase, Bequest of Joseph Halle Schaffner in memory of his beloved mother, Sara H. Schaffner, and Gift of Carl Rungius, by exchange, Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, 2000.14.

Sugimoto’s Birds of Japan (fig. 1) is a black-and-white gelatin silver print measuring 20 by 24 inches. Its composition is meticulously crafted. Amplifying the qualities of the original diorama, Sugimoto has framed the scene according to traditional Western landscape conventions. Trees and branches in the foreground function as repoussoirs, framing devices that direct attention towards the middle of the picture. At first glance, the picture seems to capture a view of nature filled with rich flora and fauna. In the foreground, copper pheasants, chickadees and Japanese magpies are scattered throughout the trees and bushes. Our eyes are immediately drawn to the two copper pheasants standing in the small open area to the center-right, especially the distinct feathers of the one facing us. Birds of smaller sizes, each of a different species, can be seen sitting in the bushes, resting on leaves, and flying in the air. Upon closer examination, however, a number of incongruities emerge that prompt us to question the apparent realism of the scene. The lighting in the foreground creates an unnaturally stark contrast in light and shadows of the grass, trees, and birds (fig. 2). This is at odds with the atmospheric conditions implied by the background, which is rendered in more muted tones and shows the peak of Mount Fuji enveloped in clouds. The artificial lighting and the inorganic transition between foreground and background creates a surreal visual experience.

Fig. 2. Hiroshi Sugimoto, Birds of Japan (Details).

This inconsistency in lighting is only one of several contradictions at work in Sugimoto’s photograph, which contribute to its surreal quality. This inconsistency is due to the technical dispositif of the diorama. In a diorama, the foreground is exposed in artificial lighting, while the background would consist of a painted two-dimensional surface rendered in one-point perspective (fig. 3). The use of black and white photography, however, blurs this distinction, and the artist’s intentional composition seamlessly unites the scene into a view into the distance. Another clue that hints at the constructed nature of the scene lies in the way the birds have been arranged and rendered. As one of the leading institutions of its type in the country, the American Museum of Natural History’s dioramas feature impeccably preserved and arranged taxidermy mounts that strive to create a realistic impression, something Sugimoto particularly valued. Sugimoto’s careful alignment of his lens with the single perspectival point around which the diorama was constructed enhance this realism, presenting the taxidermy birds as essentially lifelike. However, it is highly unlikely that a viewer would encounter this particularly arrangement of so many different species in nature. Even more improbable is the sharp registration of the birds’ feathers, which would have required that the birds remain motionless during a long exposure. The very qualities that make the birds seem so lifelike, then, also hint at the constructed nature of the scene captured by the camera’s lens.

Fig. 3. Photographs from the construction of the Japanese Bird Group at the American Museum of Natural History, ca. 1960. Images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library.

Sugimoto’s discussion of his diorama series as re-photography acquires another layer of meaning when we consider the process involved in the original diorama’s creation. Interestingly, the production dioramas often involves photographic source material. For instance, the background of the American Museum of Natural History’s “Japanese Bird Group” diorama was based on stereo and panoramic photographs taken onsite in Japan. These photographs were then painstakingly copied onto a horseshoe-shaped wall using a perspectival grid. A photograph of the construction of the diorama from the archives of the American Museum of Natural History shows the painter Matthew Kalmenoff at work on the diorama’s background (fig. 4). Kalmenoff based his background painting on photographs taken at the site in 1959, the same year the diorama was constructed, by George E. Petersen, who worked in the museum’s Exhibitions Department.[4] Before selecting the exact location to be reproduced in the exhibit, Petersen climbed many mountains in the area and viewed Mount Fuji from all sides. He judged the view from Mount Eboshidake to be the most spectacular, while at the same time offering the most interesting and representative foreground. The American Museum of Natural History’s ambition to reproduce the most authentic and aesthetic view of the original site is evident in these behind-the-scenes photographs, which reveal the considerable efforts its staff undertook to produce the most convincing and realistic taxidermy display.

Fig. 4. Matthew Kalmenoff working on background for Japanese Bird Group, Hall of Birds of the World at the American Museum of Natural History. Image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library.

The meticulous process involved in the construction of the original diorama mirrored by that of Sugimoto’s photographic process. To create his diorama series, the artist used long exposures lasting between twenty minutes to an hour. Shooting museum displays indoors meant reckoning with a number of lighting constraints. Although Sugimoto set up his own lights and reflectors, because the dioramas are encased in glass, this meant Sugimoto could only compensate for the museum’s preexisting lighting with frontal illumination, which depending on the diorama in question could result in an uneven illumination. Sugimoto employed a wide variety of methods to compensate for such variables. In one interview, he described a time when he had to physically enter the photograph during the exposure to correct the lighting:

“Sometimes the lighting on the sky is uneven because one of the lightbulbs is off or some other reason. In that case, the sky area is brighter than the ground area. I want to give more exposure to the ground but not the sky, so I had to put on a ninja costume and enter the photograph. Using a black card, I dodge the sky. Basically, I have to dance during the exposure to correct it. Other than having to work with available light, there is always a glass between his camera and the dioramas, so meticulous work is done during the printing process to erase traces of the glass reflections. All this technicality contributes to the unlikeliness of photography as a mediated and manipulated representation, rather than something that directly reflects our vision. [5]

These meticulous techniques allow for the production of an apparently utopic vision of nature, a place and time that is undefined, and in a way, timeless. Sugimoto’s goal when he started the series was to “re-record untouched nature.”[6] The dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History were based on specimens and source material collected as part of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. The U.S. government sent scientists, photographers, and artists to various sites around the world to document the natural environment through sketches, photographs, and other documents, which, along with biological specimens, were then brought back to the museums around the United States to construct dioramas. The project privileged a vision of untouched nature, which the dioramas were meant to preserve and make available to urban American audiences. For Sugimoto, the dioramas preserve a historical vision of a pristine natural world that, if it ever existed, has since been destroyed. Drawing on the sketches and photographs produced by the artists who created these dioramas, Sugimoto attempts to recreate their vision by re-photographing the finished product.

In addition to the use of photography in the construction of dioramas, the diorama’s history as a visual technology is also closely tied to that of photography. In 1822, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, the inventor and namesake of the daguerreotype (which became the first commercially successful photographic process), introduced the diorama as a form of optical entertainment for the Parisian public.[7] In the context of an era steeped in a Romantic philosophy, which decried humans’ physical and emotional detachment from nature, the diorama fulfilled a popular craving for contact with nature by bringing scenes of pastoral nature to the cities in which people increasingly lived.[8] During that time, taxidermy often served to evoke the exotic and diverse flora and fauna of faraway lands. Post-colonial critiques have contextualized taxidermy as an imperial technology, which, like photography, was used to preserve an idealized vision of nature that the very process of colonization threatened.[9] Bryan Rasmussen argues that

“Like photographs, dioramas “precisely depict a moment in time,” an “instant,” and a “specific location, complete with its indigenous flora and wildlife.” “Time” in the diorama “has stopped.” And though, “sadly, many of the carefully chosen actual locations no longer exist in pristine condition … they are captured for posterity in … the museum.”[10]

Drawing on the historical association of the diorama and photography, Sugimoto’s diorama series suggest that what the diorama preserves is ultimately a “conservation ideal” that imagines a vanishing natural world as something that can be preserved through technologies of reproduction, whether in the form of taxidermy mounts, diorama displays, or photographic images.[11]

Sugimoto’s work invites us to pay attention to the mediated character of these representations. The uncanny visual experience of his re-photographed dioramas produce is the deliberate result of a meticulous artistic and technical process. The lost, inaccessible, and to a large extent imagined temporalities contained in his photographs speak to a past that has been constructed, the present in which it is represented, and the future that we have yet to experience. All three collapse into the surface of Sugimoto’s photographs. The diorama series pictures, then, not moments of the past but memories of and perhaps for the future.[12] This collision of representational systems, of time, and of space, is unsettling. Unable to decipher what is real or what was real, without firm ground to stand on in the present or the past, the viewer is left with an uncanny feeling. As in Plato’s cave, these photographs are a representation of a representation.

James R. Ryan writes, “photographs of stuffed animals…represent a kind of double mimesis and reinforce the shared ways in which photography and taxidermy are manifestations of a desire to possess and control nature.” One aim of the diorama project is to investigate modes of representation and challenge our perception of nature. On the other hand, Sugimoto’s works can be interpreted as a nostalgic and fantastical portrayals of the natural world based on the artist’s own imagination. He is interested in issues of the Anthropocene, deep time, and climate change. Through photographing the dioramas, Sugimoto seeks to endow his photographs with a new life that is both anachronistic and timeless, a renewed agency that transcends its subjects.

Birds of Japan, along with other photographs from his diorama series, also appears in another project, in which the artist attempts to assemble an unrecorded history of the earth. Between 2004 and 2007, History of History—an exhibition conceived and curated by Sugimoto—travelled around the world. Comprising more than 80 works, History of History juxtaposes photographs selected from the Sugimoto’s series of dioramas, seascapes, and wax museum figures with an enormous range of traditional Japanese objects and ritual artifacts drawn from his private collection. The exhibition embraces an immense span of time, materials ,and representational processes, from fossils to pre-historic stone and bronze ritual objects, to silver-gelatin prints. The resulting presentation is a precisely staged, richly evocative construction of history—a history that unfolds through attentive experience and a continual discovery of the past in the present and the present in the past.[13]

One of the works in this exhibition, Cause and Effect in Black and White (fig. 5), is a re-organization and re-presentation of Sugimoto’s black and white photographs. The installation is comprised of twelve archival boxes, on top of each box is a photograph from his pre-existing works in the diorama or wax-figure series. From the first picture, Cambrian Period, which presents a diorama that imagines the earth 6000 years ago, to the last picture, Birds of Japan, based on photographs and specimens collected from postwar Japan in the late 1950s, the artist picks and chooses from his oeuvre to re-create a timeline of the anthropocentric history of earth. In this work, Sugimoto presents twelve moments in a seemingly chronologic order: Cambrian Period, Permian Land, Gorilla, Earliest Human Relative, Homo Ergaster, Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon, Spartacus, The Royal Family, Einstein, Hiroshima Bombing, and lastly, Nature of Japan (an alternate title for Birds of Japan). The first seven pictures, up until Cro-Magnon, are all works from his diorama series, whereas the pictures from Spartacus to Hiroshima Bombing come from his wax figure series. However, the last work, Birds of Japan, returns the viewer to the diorama series. The selection and arrangement of this work reveals the artist’s nostalgia for a distant past, as well as a romantic imagination of a distant future in which humans have disappeared, allowing the natural world to regenerate. Cause and Effect in Black and White thus creates a new context for the works: the dioramas and wax figures turn into a fictional yet hyperreal narrative in which Sugimoto archives his interpretation and imagination of history. In contrast to the presentation of these works as individual photographs, here we are no longer invited to question when and how the photographs and dioramas were made. Arranged into a pseudo-chronological narrative, Cause and Effect in Black and White seems to position Sugimoto’s photographs as stand-ins for the historical moments they depict, only to better expose them as part of a historical narration fabricated by the artist.

Fig. 5. Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cause and Effect in Black and White. 2003, installation with photographs.

Birds of Japan compels the viewers to ponder how our perception of reality, time, and space is constructed and mediated by a variety of cultural and technological apparatuses. By pushing and challenging the limits of photography as a medium, Sugimoto re-examines one of photography’s foundational myths—the idea that, through photography, we have reached a certain limit of equivalence between reality and its reproduction. His diorama works attempt to capture, whether metaphorically or by proxy, that which cannot be represented directly. The installation, Cause and Effect in Black and White, further manifests aporias of time: the abstract schematic time of past, present, and future; time as we experience it individually, the concrete sensations of passage of time; and the contrast between the brevity of human life and immensity of geological deep time.

[1] Hiroshi Sugimoto, “Biography — Hiroshi Sugimoto.” Accessed March 1, 2022. https://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/biography.

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 76.

[3] Sugimoto, Hiroshi, “It’s All About…Hiroshi Sugimoto.” The New York Times, 28 Nov. 2007. Video, 4:29.

[4] American Museum of Natural History, “Japanese Bird Group Nears Completion,” Grapevine XVII, no. 1 (February 1960): 1–5.

[5] Hiroshi Sugimoto and Philip Larratt-Smith, Hiroshi Sugimoto: Black Box (New York: Aperture, 2016), 141.

[6] Ibid., 145.

[7] Giovanni Aloi, Speculative Taxidermy: Natural History, Animal Surfaces, and the Art of the Anthropocene (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 115.

[8] Bryan B. Rasmussen, “Technologies of Nature: The Natural History Diorama and the Preserve of Environmental Consciousness,” Victorian Studies 60, no.2 (Winter 2018): 255-268, 259.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Ibid., 261.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jessica Landau, “Preserving the (Uncanny) End of Nature: Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Diorama,” Antennae 40 (2017): 20-30, 24.

[13] See Hiroshi Sugimoto, L’histoire de l’histoire (Tokyo: Rikuyosha, 2004).

This site is for educational purposes only. Certain images on this website are protected by copyright and may be subject to other third party rights; downloading for commercial use is prohibited.