There’s a lot to love about the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, but it’s hard to imagine an experience more distant from nature. Perched serenely atop a mountain that overlooks exclusive Brentwood more exclusive Bel Air, its sculpted panoramic views integrating city and surrounding mountains are deceptive. It’s just off the 405 freeway, that triumphant memorial to the auto-industry’s victory over nature which slices through the Santa Monica mountain range and divides natural habitats, most notably of the mountain lion. Accessible by futuristic Disney-style tram that slowly lifts visitors to a condor’s eye view, it’s a constructed haven from urban ecology and ecosystem alike. It’s a place where the garden tour docent claims proudly reiterates installation artist Robert Irwin’s staunch description of his garden as an art and not a botanical garden, and notes all the ways in which its “natural” features—ravine, river, flowers—were designed and displayed with tightly controlled aeshetics in mind: their river rocks hewn from the slopes of the eastern Sierra Nevada; their imported South American bougainvillea trellised on massive rebar columns.
So, too, with a recent special exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of American Natural History Museum wildlife dioramas. Hanging on the walls as part of an exhibit devoted to the history of photography, we’re asked to view Sugimoto’s photographs of the reconstructed habitats of wildlife through the lens of the camera lens, not as artifacts in the history of natural history.
But it’s curious to think about the role of nature in this unnatural place, and through the technological mediation of photography. Or, rather, through the photographs of an earlier medium for viewing nature, the diorama. What strikes me as especially odd about Sugimoto’s diorama photographs is that while they are commentaries on the weirdness of museums, invoking and exhibiting contradictions and strange loops in the history of museums and museum display, these contradictions can be productively repurposed in the service of nature: the very thing these images, and this museum, remind us that we are not part of.
Illusions of Life
Natural history is made from dead things. Collecting and preserving specimens caught—killed—in the field is the bread and butter of the museum display. Naturalists of the nineteenth century invented dioramas as a way to resurrect, not just the specimens themselves, but the ecological scenes from which they came “at a time when the average person could not travel to visit wild places far from home” 1. Before dioramas, such places were recreated in text, through the word-paintings of explorers like the eighteenth-century German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt, himself inspired by the Romantic visions of Goethe, awed readers with descriptions of natural wonders in the Americas, inspiring the likes of Charles Darwin in his Voyage of the Beagle (1839) and setting off an era of natural exploration. Natural history museums emerged to preserve, catalogue, and classify the specimens brought back from such voyages, forming the core of museum collections to this day. Museums also used them to recreate whole scenes from nature, inaugurating a new, visual way to encounter nature and educate a public tantalized by narratives of discovery.
Sugimoto’s photographs belong to this tradition. It’s no coincidence that photography and the diorama emerged at the same moment: The French artist Louis Daguerre invented photography with his Daguerreotype, a process of fixing images onto silver plates through chemical treatment. Daguerre patented the diorama in 1822, and his first Daguerreotypes were of them. Daguerre’s early dioramas presented huge scenes painted on curtains and illuminated by clever methods in darkened theaters to produce a kind of “reality effect.” Later, he would arrange objects, and people, in the foreground of these scenes. Daguerre would photograph these scenes, which helped produce the illusion of depth where there was none: the backgrounds took on three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional image. The black and white image helped complete the illusion of reality and and atmospheric sense of ‘being there’ by playing up the contrasts in light and shadow. The strange lifelikeness of these scenes appealed to visitors who could not afford to travel to such real historical places, but I imagine they would also have appealed to those who had been there and wanted to resurrect their memory and feel again the sense of immersion and presence.
The image above of Holyrood Chapel is a painting Daguerre made of the diorama. He may have achieved its lifelike lighting by looking at his painted screen first to see how the light and shadow played on it. The black and white version gives some sense of how a Daguerreotype may have reproduced the diorama to achieve the same illusion.
Early on, dioramas were meant to be photographed and painted. But pretty soon the diorama gained its own life as a means of staging lifelike habitat scenes for a viewing public, thanks to Carl Akely (1864-1926), naturalist, taxidermist, and dioramist of the American Natural History Museum in 1889 2. Akely resurrected Renaissance methods of painting on curved backgrounds to accompany Daguerre’s earlier technique of using creative light and shadow to reinforce a lifelikeness. The effects were—and still are—sublime. Writes, Stephen Quinn, “Crossing the threshold of the Akely Hall [of African mammals] one enters a hushed, darkened theater of the vanishing natural Eden of Africa. The looming profiles of a herd of African elephants gradually take form in the dim light. Surrounding this imposing central elephant group are twenty-eight luminous ‘windows’ to the natural world.” 3
Through lighting design and subtle spatial illusions, and through modern techniques in taxidermy, dioramas brought to life the long-dead specimens of nineteenth-century explorers, re-placing them in their “natural” habitats—many of which were not simply invented, but exhaustively researched by painters who visited actual places and painted on site, like new Humboldts returning to the primal scenes of nature’s gestalt. 4
Dioramas also left behind the narrative text of earlier explorers: they were presented with minimal apparatus. The educational value of these diorama scenes was not in learning about ecology or ethology, but in the unmediated, affective encounter with lifelike scenes. Dioramas aimed to provoke wonder and awe as a means to understanding the fragility and finiteness of a natural world that was rapidly becoming an exploitable resource. “They were created to promote the love and concern or nature and its wise stewardship.” 5
From a postmodern perspective, there is of course a weird irony in the very idea of “lifelikeness”—of creating the illusion of life from dead things as a way to connect the viewer with a really living nature. And indeed Sugimoto’s photographs belong to this postmodern tradition as well, taking scenes of nature that were first transformed by design and taxidermy to promote natural awareness and transforming them again by photography back into the two dimensional image that, ironically, seems more “real” than the diorama. They do this by reversing the three-dimensional process the diorama: unlike that process, which was additive, Sugimoto’s is subtractive: instead of adding depth, he removes it through photography. Instead of creating color, he renders the scenes in black and white. Instead of mimicking scale, he reduces it to the size of a portrait. Instead of including even the minimal textual accompaniment of dioramas, he eliminates it altogether. (Indeed, Sugimoto likes to play with perspective—photographing movie theater interiors flooded with light, and Madame Tussaud’s wax museum historical personages as massive black and white portraits.)
On display are not scenes of nature, but the transformative power of the camera to turn one representation of nature—the diorama—into another—the landscape portrait, resurrecting that earlier medium as art to put on view as conceptually far as possible from the scene of its first taking. Like a diorama, his images trick our perspective, but the trick shows us the aesthetic quality of the scene, rather than its authenticity.
The Lost Museum Found
But Sugimoto’s dioramas may also recover certain pre-modern sensibilities. Sugimoto says on his website that when he first spied the dioramas at the museum in 1974, they seemed “utterly fake.” Only by closing one eye and removing depth did they appear real again. His remark speaks to our own era’s sensibility, which is no longer convinced by the naivety of the diorama, and which only preserves them as quaint reminders of earlier episodes in the history of science, when art hadn’t left these museums to set up shop in museums of its own. 6
Before our modern museums separated art from nature, the logic of display was to bring all the universe under one roof. Naturalia (objects from nature, like specimens), scientifica (instruments for transforming nature, like photography), and artificialia (man-made objects, like diorama paintings) enjoyed a certain camaraderie. Those early museums—cabinets of curiosity, Wunderkammern—aimed to promote wonder as a means to connect the observer with the universe. The feeling of awe was supposed to be transformative, just as the nineteenth-century natural history dioramas aimed to promote affection for nature and the politics of conservation through re-staging the scenes of our first encounter with the natural world. Art and science and nature bound up in a window display.
The creators of museum diorama halls tried to recover some of this unified, cosmological significance when they arranged their dioramas like paintings in a portrait gallery. The great ovular space of the Whitney Memorial Hall of Pacific Birds at the American Museum of Natural History invokes the galleries of the first formal public museums, places like the eighteenth-century Teylers Museum in the Netherlands, dedicated to preserving its historical connection between science and art, and which itself had formalized the apparent hodgepodge of “stuff” in Renaissance curiosity cabinets. The Whitney Hall’s individual dioramas “hang” like paintings arranged on the walls, as if the artworks themselves are creatures in a habitat. Its roof, curved and painted with clouds, is the backdrop that gives the illusion to this room-scale diorama that we are outdoors. Benches in the middle, as in an art museum, let one sit and feel the pleasure of this illusion of immersion, and contemplate the great diorama that is nature.
The nature invoked by those diorama halls is harder to imagine now that it was then. But this is the promise of Sugimoto’s photographs—to resurrect the wonder of the diorama that has been lost to a more knowing sensibility. Sugimoto’s dioramas resurrect, through mechanical process and tricks of light and depth, both specimen and art form. Natural history specimens from two centuries ago get a new purchase in photographs, but so does the diorama itself as another way of looking at nature: when we look at these photographs, we are looking, too, at the ways naturalists more than a century ago were looking at the natural world. But it’s a way of looking that oddly we cannot see when we look at dioramas without photography. The sensibility that allowed us to see through the diorama to nature, as “windows,” has been lost to time. We can only see those scenes now as images. And so in Sugimoto’s photos, their sensibilities are preserved as much as their specimens.
By reuniting the diorama with its early partner, photography, Sugimoto reunites two kinds of museums and two sensibilities—science and art—that went their separate ways long ago. Just as dioramas resurrect specimens in lifelike environments, the photographs resurrect that old museum art form in the lifelike environment of the Getty, a diorama in the larger diorama of Los Angeles. Sugimoto makes us wonder whether any object—any art form—is really ever dead. His images are like those taxidermied specimens, animals that are only “dead” in one sense, in one context. In another, like the museum diorama, they belongs to a thriving ecology (despite that the ecology itself might have long ago succumbed to human exploitation).
Perhaps it speaks to the tragedy of our detachment from nature that the artist must resort to such elaborate means to recover a connection. And these are indeed pretty postmodern means. They acknowledge that we can’t see this connection until someone shows us an image of what we’re looking at—and that we’re looking. The camera stages for us something that is hard to recover, namely that someone—us—is doing, or once did, the looking and thus involved in the drama of the experience of the natural world. By looking at images of an artist looking at models of naturalists looking at the natural world, the images reveal that we’ve lost the sense of those early visitors to dioramas who saw through the diorama and experienced the awe of nature. Sugimoto replaces—I won’t say recovers—that awe with the sense that, through the act of looking, we belong to that scene, we are involved in its construction. This feeling, if not the unrecoverable feeling of direct experience, is an immediate one, recreated through thickly mediated conventions by which the act of looking itself becomes part of the experience.
The effect—spooky, eerie—is compounded by those diorama photographs in which animals look back at us viewers, as is the case with the troop of gemsboks, the Oryx gazellae, which seem to hover before us, caught in a moment of perpetual surprise and attention, as if we had just stumbled on them in the Kalahari Desert plains of Botswana. Their fleeting, ghostly quality suggests impermanence. Their uncannily lifelike look makes direct appeal, reaching out to observers where they feel least connected to nature, in an unlikely L.A. art museum. (It’s amusing to me, too, that the oryx is responsible for a wondrous illusion of its own—when viewed from the side and from a distance, as very early Greek explorers did when they visited India in the fourth century BCE, in two-dimensions as it were, its two horns became one and a bicorn animal became a unicorn.)
I want to say that there is a message of conservation embedded in this strange encounter with nature many times removed, perhaps a commentary on our distance from nature. Nature dioramas emerged at the same time that people gained a sense for the finiteness and fragility of nature. As our nagging sense of this finiteness and fragility increases, so too does our means of representing that sense become ironical. Perhaps there is an inverse relationship between proximity and awareness: the more distanced we are from nature, the more acute our awareness of the fragility. And the more ironical our means of capturing this awareness, the more perilous our relationship to the thing itself.
Iconography of Loss
When talking about images, it’s useful to think in terms of signs—of indexes and icons. Early dioramas are an index of nature, that is, they point to (index) nature, like Adam pointed to animals in Eden and gave them names. An index references something, a presence. In natural history museums of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, word and thing were connected intimately, and this intimacy produced awe.
Icons, on the other hand, are images without a referent: they point at nothing. They signify absence, not presence. Perhaps the most famous icon is René Magritte’s La trahison des image (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) from 1929—a painting of a pipe with the line “this is not a pipe.” What is Magritte painting? A pipe? In which case the painting is an index. Or the image of a pipe? In which case it’s an icon: the painting’s lifelikeness is a trick that reveals the reality of absence. It negates the pipe even as it invokes it.
A lot hangs on whether Sugimoto’s photographs index nature or make an icon of it. If they are an index, they point to something, to nature. Perhaps they do this by indexing another’s index, another time’s way of referring to nature. We’re once removed from another’s remove, but still there is something at the end of all this mediation. But what if they are icons, images without a referent? What if they point to an absence, and the ghostly gemsboks are merely the residue, the after-image, of nature, standing in spookily, enigmatically, for something we’ve lost? If they are indexes, they index our awareness. They mean that we’re not children in the garden anymore: we’re all grown up. We cannot afford to be unaware of our relationship, our connection, to nature. They are a desperate plea. But if they are icons, all is lost.
- Stephen Quinn, Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History (New York: Abrams, 2006), 6 ↩
- Quinn, Windows, 13. ↩
- Quinn, Windows, 18. ↩
- See the online biography of dioramist James Wilson Perry, Painting Actuality: Diorama Art of James Wilson Perry, Yale Peabody Archive: http://peabody.yale.edu/james-perry-wilson ↩
- Quinn, Windows, 10. ↩
- http://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/diorama.html ↩