My descendants project is possibly the most popular project I have ever shot, with good reason I suppose as family resemblance is always of interest.
For the past 10 years I have been recreating portraits of some of the world’s most famous historical figures with their direct descendants.
After in-depth research tracing the direct descendants and verifying their lineage, the famous portraits are recreated with painstaking attention to the smallest of details, from sourcing the period costumes and props to the authentic backgrounds I then carefully analyse the lighting in each portrait and patiently recreates it using the latest lighting techniques.
I’m often asked in interviews how I came up with the idea and the truth is I can’t remember exactly how I did come up with the concept, after all it was 10 rather busy years ago now.
Certainly my Mum telling me how much of resemblance I bore to my grandfather, who died when I was very small, played its part, but perhaps an even bigger part has been played by our current celebrity obsessed culture which reveres many ‘celebrities’ just for being famous and often not for their achievements or indeed lack of them….we can all reel a number of names off that fit the bill, right?
Imaging how many people there are out there who are descended from famous historical figures who still have an impact on the way we live today really set me on my journey.
How much or how little resemblance would the descendants bear to there famous ancestors? And indeed would they posses any of the same qualities?
It has been a very interesting and illuminating journey which has revealed some facts which have been overlooked
Some notable faces from history that have been recreated with their direct descendants include King Charles II of England, known as the merry king, he was also a patron of scientific research. France’s first emperor and considered to be one of the world’s greatest military leaders, Napoleon Bonaparte.
My favourites? Well that is not too difficult, Helen Pankhurst the direct descendant of suffergette Emeline Pankhurst has many of the same values as her forbear which shine through in this interview, the resemblance is striking too.
Another standout one for me was Oliver Cromwell, the controversial but great military leader, skilled politician and ‘Lord Protector’ of the Commonwealth between 1653 and 1658. Somehow Charles Bush bore a string resemblance to OliverCromwell and I feel we got the lighting spot on.
The BIG one where I felt the weight of history perhaps more than at any other point was the Mona Lisa.
The direct descendants of the Mona Lisa are two Italian Princess’s Natalia and Irina Strozzi who manage the world renowned Strozzi wine producer, who live in Tuscany and it goes without saying that with an opportunity like this I had to go the extra mile, and in addition to shooting a still I decided to shoot a TV documentary which told the story of recreating the Mona Lisa, researching the lighting, and every fine detail of the most famous painting in the world.
I had an exact copy of the Mona Lisa’s costume made entirely from silk, the Mona Lisa’s husband was a silk merchant after all, made by an historic costumer Pauline Loven in Lincolnshire the copy of the chair was made by Timothy Aze from High Wycombe and the background was painted by Caroline De Peyrecave in a beautiful studio in Florence. The journey took me all over Europe visiting Dr Armin Schlechter in Germany who made the remarkable discovery of a contemporaneous note in the margin of a book which definitively established the identity of the Mona Lisa beyond all reasonable doubt and to France to see Pascal Cotte who scanned the Mona Lisa and established the true colours of the painting, which are much more vivid than the faded dull tones you see in the painting today.
Preparation for a shoot like this is vital and I shot several test shoots before the real thing advised by David Hobby of Strobist fame and Jarek Wieczorkiewicz of Aurumlight.
I shot the recreation in the wine cellars of the Strozzi estate in beautiful Tuscany. I used the cellars as they are super atmospheric and it was easy to control the light as there were no windows, I knew that from the exhaustive test I did in the UK that complete control of the lighting would make or break this shoot.
Here you can watch the video of the project.
Was I successful? Well you can be the judge of that but I’m very pleased with the outcome.
People ask me how the descendants react when they see the final image and my response can be a little disappointing as the fact of the matter is that all the descendants who I photograph already know that that are related to historic figures and in the process of taking measurements for the costumes they have become accustomed to the idea and the actual day of the shoot is actually just the last piece in the visual jigsaw puzzle we have been working towards.
I have photographed nearly 20 descendants and they were exhibited at the Oxford Photography festival last year and featured in the Sunday Times magazine and on the BBC world service.
What next? Well the journey continues, and I will have some more to share in the next few months.