This iteration of
Viewpoints features Hiroshi Sugimoto's photograph Catherine Parr (1999) accompanied by commentary by Brian Curless, professor of computer science and engineering; Susan Gaylard, associate professor of Italian; and Phillip Thurtle, associate professor of history.
This image is part of Hiroshi Sugimoto's Portraits series, for which he photographed wax likenesses of such historic figures as William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Fidel Castro, and Henry VIII and his six wives, including Catherine Parr, who is on view here. Sugimoto photographed the wax sculpture of the English queen at Madame Tussauds in London, which in turn had been modeled after a sixteenth-century oil painted portrait by an unknown artist. This transference of media—from oil painting to wax sculpture to photographic still—results in a representation three times removed from the living figure. The result suggests a longstanding desire to embalm the fleeting presence of a human subject, and invites questions about the camera as an apparatus that interprets and influences historical truth.
Since the 1970s Sugimoto has made photographs that explore how the camera shapes visual perception and cultural memory. The Portraits expand his investigation of the photographic medium as a tool to frame and preserve reality, which he first explored in his earliest images of natural history museum dioramas. On first look these photographs suggest live, nature photography, but quickly reveal their artifice—stiff, long-dead specimens or re-creations set against painted backgrounds.
A Fragile Ideal
- Susan Gaylard, Associate Professor, Department of French and Italian Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor, Division of Art, Department of Art + Art History + Design
Sixteenth-century portraits of women were typically intended to signal the subject's unique value to her husband—her wealth, her heritage, her beauty and chastity. Yet in the photographic medium, the possibility of replication is not just threatened, but realized—rendering uniqueness moot. The replication inherent to the photographic medium was actualized by Henry VIII's multiple marriages, which collapsed the idea of the one divinely-ordained chaste queen.
The huge size of the photograph and the camera angle emphasize the subject's clothing, as would be typical of a Renaissance portrait. At the same time, the camera angle highlights the queen's hands, enlarging them in a way that disrupts expectations of Renaissance women's portraits. Here, Catherine Parr's large, capable hands hold a staff indicating a latent sense of power. The gilt embroidery on the linen cuffs, which might be expected to hide and diminish the hands, draws attention to these large, strong hands with their ragged nails.
The ragged nails along with other details of human fatigue and vulnerability—the bags under the eyes, the guarded facial expression, and the play of shadows on the face and neck—contrast with the persona of "queen" constructed by the voluminous and highly ornate dress and headgear, reminding the viewer that any portrait is an idealization.
-Phillip Thurtle, Associate Professor, Department of History and Program in the Comparative History of Ideas
Reproduction is a dark form of magic. It's like that game where you stare in a mirror and chant "Bloody Mary," "Bloody Mary," "Bloody Mary." The fear is that after the third "Bloody Mary" is uttered, the speaker will conjure the actual spirit of Bloody Mary. The mirror plays an important role in this game, for it is from that spooky place of doubling, contained in all forms of reproduction, that Bloody Mary emerges. One likes to think that reproduction gives us greater certainty about the world by reflecting it as it is. Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. Every time we look in a mirror, we are also reminded of all the things that we can't see, such as what is happening behind our backs. This means that at the very moment that mirrors appear to confirm the world as we see it, they also amplify a very deep fear that we can never be certain about what we see.
Photographic reproduction does the same thing, as well. Every time we take a photograph we may also capture something we didn't observe at the moment of making—we solidify a shadow, freeze a gesture, or magnify a detail. This is the type of magic that Sugimoto dabbles in with his portrait of Catherine Parr, a photograph of a wax figure that is itself a copy of a sixteenth-century oil painting. I became wise to Sugimoto's "tricks" when I saw the size of Catherine's hands. They've somehow enlarged themselves to become the focal point of the photograph. And this is why his magic is so dark. We want to think that mechanical and digital reproduction produces a world as it is. But the world never waits to be reproduced, so what we end up sharing in a photograph are hazy memories of a world just passed and the unnerving premonitions of a world yet to be.
-Brian Curless, Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering
Sugimoto's photograph Catherine Parr is a remarkably convincing portrait—seemingly real, but delightfully impossible. One of the Holy Grails in my own research fields of computer vision and computer graphics is the capture and perfect rendering of virtual replicas of the real world, including people that are visually indistinguishable from reality. When working from a live figure, we use extremely advanced technology to photograph the shape, motion, and appearance of the subject. By
analyzing these photographs, we reconstruct a virtual model that allows us to synthesize new images of our subject from any viewpoint under any lighting. We can, with more effort, achieve similar virtual models when a live figure is not available by working from pre-existing reference materials such as more casually taken photographs and videos.
Sugimoto cleverly short-circuits these technology-intensive methods by using physical media; he simply photographs a wax reproduction, itself based on a sixteenth-century portrait. His use of black-and-white photography confers a kind of documentary authenticity that allows his image to leap across one of the major challenges in wax reproduction and computer graphics known as the "uncanny valley." This occurs when a representation becomes less abstract and more realistic, but as our appreciation for the realism grows, we reach a critical point when the representation looks almost human—but not quite. The result is unsettling and our appreciation plummets, addressable only by pushing the representation to the next level of realism.
As Sugimoto startles us by impossibly bridging time—Catherine Parr pre-dates the invention of photography—I think of how spanning the uncanny valley in computer science will change photography and our relationship to the past in astounding ways. Today, we can look at photos of our loved ones and contemplate what they were like in the past, but photos are frozen in time. Will we someday be able to record a person, perhaps one of our children—record not just shape, motion, and materials, but also behavior and personality—to such high fidelity that we can have a completely convincing conversation with the child, long since grown up?