Hiroshi Sugimoto’s enduring interest in the notion of time has been a consistent theme throughout his five-decade career. In the Portraits series, within which Henry VIII and his six wives are arguably the most celebrated, Sugimoto explores photography’s inextricable relationship to the past, delighting in the intricate web of meaning that derives not just from the historicity of his subjects but from the multiple layers of historical representation – oil painting, wax effigies, silver gelatin on paper – that his photographs enshrine. In this video, Emily Bierman, Sotheby’s Global Head of Photographs, explores the history and importance of these portraits with Old Master Painting specialist Calvine Harvey. As curator Nancy Spector noted, ‘His black-and-white images, as reproductions of reproductions, thaw the “mortuary chill” that pervades the great halls of wax.’
Although made more than 20 years later, Portraits—and its immediate predecessor Wax Museum—is a natural extension of the Dioramas series. For each portrait, Sugimoto photographed a wax figure at Madame Tussauds, the venerable institution that has been crafting meticulous facsimiles of historical (and fictional) figures since the eighteenth century. With his trademark sharp and crystalline resolution, Sugimoto breathes new life into these otherwise static wax models, here photographically resuscitating King Henry VIII and his six infamous wives.