A Still Life

18Dec06

“A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent (from what it represents), or at least it is not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent (as is the case for every other image, encumbered– from the start, and because of its status– by the way in which the object is simulated): it is not impossible to perceive the photographic signifier (certain professionals do so), but it requires a secondary action of knowledge or of reflection.”

-Roland Barthes in “Camera Lucida”

This past winter I visited the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. One of the exhibitions hanging was a collection of work by Hiroshi Sugimoto, who specializes in large-scale black-and-white photography. I’d never been impressed by photographic exhibitions, but the scale, lushness, and elegance of his pieces blew me away. One of the rooms of the exhibition contained several photographic portraits of historical figures, such as Henry VIII. Here is the photograph “of” Henry VIII:

henryviii.jpg

I put “of” in quotation marks because clearly, Sugimoto could not have photographed the actual king. The true object of the quoted preposition is a wax reproduction, which itself was based on paintings made by Hans Holbein in the 16th century. Sugimoto arranged and posed this wax object to be the subject of his photograph.

While this photograph and the method by which it was made reminds me of Antonino’s arranging of Bice in “Adventures of a Photographer,” it also reflects Barthes’ musings about how one cannot separate the photograph from its referent. I suppose the point Barthes is making here is that there is no photograph without the referent– unlike a painting, which can exist as simply paint on a board without a subject, if one equates the subject with the referent. The referent of Sugimoto’s photograph, which references in composition and style not only the posed photographic portraits of important figures (important by virtue of being photographed in such a manner, perhaps), but also the painted portraits done in the traditional manner dating back to the 16th century and earlier, is not Henry VIII, as our typical viewing of such a photograph would lead us to assume, but a wax figure based on another man’s paintings. What does it mean that the referent of Sugimoto’s photo is a collection of historical references– wax figure; Holbein’s paintings; formal, traditional pose and composition– rather than a “real” man?

To quote Sugimoto himself: “If this photograph now appears lifelike to you, perhaps you should reconsider what it means to be alive here and now.”

-Kiriko

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