These Celebrity Portraits Are Fake. Sort of

About a year ago, Toronto residents began noticing a series of six-foot-high celebrity portraits on the sides of convenience stores around the city. There was a shirtless Justin Bieber with a gold chain around his neck, hair immaculately coiffed; Mike Tyson with his famous face tattoo; Zach Galifianakis in a T-shirt with a messenger bag slung casually around his shoulder. They were fascinated.

Selfies taken in front of these portraits started popping up on Instagram and Twitter, prompting widespread speculation about the origin of the mysterious images. "There were all these people wondering, what the hell are these things?” says Peter Andrew Lusztyk, the Canadian photographer who created the images and posted them all over town to create what he called an "illegal outdoor exhibition." "Everyone was like, is a new movie coming out or what?"

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Almost nobody guessed the truth about the images—that the portraits were actually of wax models from Madame Tussauds. Lusztyk had spent months shooting the images on site at the Madame Tussauds locations in Las Vegas and Washington, DC, where he shot the figures against a white backdrop, as if they were in a studio. He and his assistants worked in the morning, before the museum opened to the public.

The idea started as an experiment to determine if viewers could tell that the images were fake, but even Lusztyk was surprised at how realistic they looked. "Photographing them actually made them even more lifelike, because there’s no expectation for them to start blinking or breathing or moving," he says. "A photograph is a frozen image."

Lusztyk named the series "The Uncanny Valley Portraits," a reference to the idea, derived from robotics, that human simulations stir up increasingly uneasy feelings as they approach a perfect likeness to actual people. "Once people realize what they’re looking at, there is this sort of revulsion, or disgust," he says.

But the fact that many viewers don’t realize they’re looking at a wax simulacrum prompts other philosophical questions. How well do we actually know a celebrity like Britney Spears, whose image we’ve seen countless times but whom we’ve probably never met? In his famous 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” German critic Walter Benjamin argued that reproducing an image "substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence," thus destroying the "aura" of the original object or person.

Perhaps no one is more photographed today than President Trump, so when Lusztyk heard that the Washington, DC Madame Tussauds was debuting its Trump model last year, he knew he had to photograph it.

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"They created it after the inauguration, and it’s a really good one in my opinion, so I was really excited to include it in the series," he says. "The Obama one's not so great."

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