Gear Inspiration

American Descendants with the GFX 50S

· 8.August.2020

I started the Descendants project fifteen years ago, following a conversation with my mum who commented on how I looked like my grandad. It was this, combined with the wave of celebrity culture that was hitting the world like never before at that time, and I was aware that many of these so-called celebrities have never actually done anything of note, even in the recent history. Some historical figures were the biggest celebrities and had achieved so very very much and I wondered how many people were aware of them?

 I had a thought.

 Are there any traces of these truly remarkable ‘celebrities’ still walking amongst us? Do their descendants bear any resemblance to them? Do they have any shared character traits?

 And so the journey began.

Featured image above: Left – Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale / Right – Shannon LaNier by Drew Gardner.

Left: Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902). Right: Elizabeth Jenkins-Sahlin by Drew Gardner.

 I think the first three descendants who were photographed were those of Horatio Nelson, Napoleon Bonaparte, and William Wordsworth.

 I say “I think”, as I have now shot 19 now and it does become a bit of a blur in a very good way.

 At the time, in 2005, I was using the Phase One camera and back, which gave me really excellent quality in a certain perforce ‘window’. It was though very, very, expensive. I worked out later that for the same money I could have afforded a low mileage Porsche Boxster.

 When you are spending this much money on a camera, you really do you have to keep a massive level of productivity at the highest level to make it worthwhile. Since 2005 the landscape for photographers has without doubt changed, and it became increasingly difficult to justify that level of investment, particularly if you’re not actually getting big bucks jobs on a regular basis and the truth is I wasn’t.

Left: Frederick Douglass by Edwin Burke Ives and Reuben L. Andrews / Courtesy of Hillsdale College. Right: Kenneth Morris by Drew Gardner.

 After a few years in the DSLR land and small mirrorless camera world the results I was getting were good but I was missing something, a certain look and feel that medium format has.

 When I am creating the Descendants images, I am aware they will have resonance for years to come which will, I hope, have some significance and resonance for some years to come. I really wanted a camera which suits the subject – the 4×3 aspect ratio of the sensor is just right for me.

 So when I heard that Fujifilm GFX 50S was in the works I got very excited.

Behind the scenes: Working with Shannon Lanier © Still image from a video by Diego Huerta

 It has been the ideal tool to shoot all my descendants work. I have two native Fujifilm G Series lenses: the 32-64mm F4.0 and the 100-200mm F5.6, which cover me for most situations and the quality is really excellent.

However with a little bit of experimentation I have been using the Zeiss Otus 85mm F1.4 lens to truly excellent effect with superlative sharpness and contrast which is truly amazing – results are very special.

 It has a “3D-quality” that leaps off the monitor.

 I use the Zeiss Otus lens with the Kipon adapter which works well.

 Since the launch of the Fujifilm GFX 50 there have been two really important updates to the range: the GFX 50R and the GFX 100.

Behind the scenes: Working with Shannon Lanier © Still image from a video by Diego Huerta

 They are both excellent cameras but the 50R doesn’t suit me quite as well because of its “street camera” form factor and minor detail UI differences which I would miss.

GFX 100 is a tour de force and there really is not much it cannot do, for me though once again it’s the form factor that does not suit me as well as my GFX 50S.

 When I recreate a descendants portrait it is a very specific and detailed process. Firstly I find somebody who is a notable historic figure then I see if they have a direct descendent of the right gender and age.

 The next step is to approach the descendant to see if they’re open to it.

 Not everybody is, but I find that when they see the quality of the pre-existing work that it is very persuasive.

 This process alone can take weeks or months before they agree.

Once they do, it’s then a matter of working out exactly how to recreate the image. I work closely with a costumier on this process, which can be quite a lot more complex than you might imagine: with some of the clothes no longer existing an entire costume may have to be constructed from scratch by craftsmen and women.

Behind the scenes: Working with Shannon Lanier © Still image from a video by Diego Huerta

 In the case of Mona Lisa re-creation we even had to find someone who could build a chair, and this was extremely expensive.

 I spent a long time working out what sort of lighting was in the original portrait with the help of lighting wizard David Hobby of Strobist fame.

Even following this route, you encounter some real difficulties particularly when you find that the painter who might paint to the scene which was from his imagination or with such massive artistic license that it’s impossible to recreate using real props and costume.

Behind the scenes: Working with Shannon Lanier © Still image from a video by Diego Huerta

 Take the Horatio Nelson image. We sourced a completely faithful replica of the jacket that Nelson was wearing when he was shot –  it costed around £50,000, I think, and was made with real gold braiding on it.

When it it arrived we discovered it looked nothing like the jacket in the painting.

All the way through the day I was kicking myself at the big mistake I made, but then I found out it was the artist who was at fault and he originally painted Nelson with an ordinary jacket and painted the naval jacket on top afterwards to roughly fit the civilian jacket he was wearing when he sat for the portrait.

This led to a massive digital reconstruction, likewise with some of the other very grand paintings which show naval fleets and land battles.

I do like to use original or accurate costume and props, but with the best will in the world you’re never going to get close to the scenes unless you start your own battle.

In the circumstances I resort to CGI, which is neither cheap or quick, but it can be the only way of getting the job done

The American Descendants series came about after looking at the 15 descendants I had photographed to date and I realised I had not photographed anybody of colour apart from Geronimo.

History is not only white and male so I decided to seek out the often overlooked history of race.

When I embarked on the journey there was no Corona Virus and George Floyd was very much alive.

The landscape is very different.

Behind the scenes: Working with Shannon Lanier © Still image from a video by Diego Huerta

As a result the project has received quite a prominence and much more exposure than I could ever have imagined.

People ask me what I’m going to do next. I am not really sure to be honest as I have a huge number of people who got in touch with me who are the direct descendants of some really amazing people and I’m slowly working my way through the list.

I think it’s very fair to say though that having been working on this project for the past 15 years it’s something that will be a big part of my life and I will probably shoot it until my dying day.