The descendants is a special series for me, something which after coming into being 15 years ago will probably be a life long project.
To date the project has a few ‘rules’ Firstly The historic figure should be no less than a century old, secondly the historic figure must have a point of interest
This I mean they should not just be a descendant of a monarch and still be a ‘serving’ member of a royal family – what of interest would this show?
If there is an unexpected and less known path of descendancy it is far more compelling.
Historic US presidents have always held a fascination for me, the founding fathers in particular.
Around 5 years ago whilst researching the founding fathers I came across the story that after the death of his wife Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson had 6 children with Sally Hemings one of the people enslaved on his estate.
Something, it is perhaps fair to say, that you don’t tend to hear about so much.
I became aware that there were known direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson who were white and there were known descendants who were black.
Telling a story which is not as well known is much more interesting.
So I got in touch with Shannon LaNier, someone who has spoken publicly of his descendancy.
You might imagine conversations with descendants are a pretty straightforward matter with the subject agreeing straight away, and that can often be the case but not on this occasion
We scheduled a call and Shannon listened carefully and initially was sceptical.
He was not sure he wished to be visually compared to a man whom had 6 children with Sally Hemings
When Sally Hemings had her first child with Jefferson she was around 16 years of age.
Furthermore female slaves had no legal right to refuse unwanted sexual attention of their owners.
I listened carefully and the call went on for the best part of an hour.
What swayed Shannon I think was that should the shoot go head it would bring considerable attention to the complexity of Thomas Jefferson’s life and also help to highlight the life of Sally Hemings.
Gradually Shannon cane round to the idea and he agreed
With one caveat.
He would not wear the wig of Jefferson
I understood where he was coming from and I agreed.
I did have some reticence though as it is the only descendants portrait of the 18 I have shot to date where it is not entirely faithful to the original art work.
This left me with a challenging situation.
I was going to be recreating the look and feel of the original portrait with a very limited amount of costume, which is actually pretty key in creating the overall look.
I pushed this to the back of my mind as I had another two descendants to photograph as part of the series.
The lighting for the Jefferson descendants shoot was relatively straightforward, helped considerably by the relatively simple lighting that Rembrandt Peale chose to portray in the iconic official presidential portrait of 1800.
To replicate this I settled on a very simple set up to replicate the lighting in the painting.
Just two lights, Profoto D1 as a key light with a beauty dish and a honeycomb, for the glow on the background I opted again for a Profoto D1 with a snoot. It turned out though that in the pre lighting set up that it still was not giving me a tight enough ball of light on the background.
One thing I must not forget to mention is the reflector on camera right to gently fill the left of Shannon’s face.
Pre lighting is something that over the years I have learned is vital to delivering great, consistent results.
As the old adage goes ‘The harder I practice the luckier I get’ (an adage which it often attributed to golfer Gary Player but it seems to go back much further than that)
I needed a small honeycomb grid for the snoot, which I did not have, only the full sized unit.
So previous to the shoot with the help of good old gaffer tape I fashioned a make shift honeycomb which which was not pretty to look at but worked very well.
I have not mentioned the camera and lens, I opted for the excellent Fujifilm GFX 50S medium format with the Zeiss Otus 85mm F1.4, mounted on a Kipon adaptor. To some it may seem an unusual set up for the project but I have been working with the setup extensively for the last year and I am thrilled with the results this combination gives, used intelligently it really excellent results with lots of resolution and contrast, a different look to anything else. Shooting at full aperture, F1.4, on a medium format sensor gave me the look I was after.
After all of the careful costume research and time spent on getting Shannon looking just right the moment came to begin the shoot.
The pressure of the moment, knowing that one’s hopes and dreams come down to this moment which mostly goes well but sometimes doesn’t – the nerves of the moment in a shoot never leave me.
It is at this moment when you get the first inkling that the shot is going to work out.
For all of the lighting and costume it comes down to communication and an understanding between the subject and yourself.
With the camera to my eye I sometimes question how much or how little the descendant looks like their forbear.
For a split second moment I saw something in Shannon which resonated with me, perhaps I was carried away in the moment ? Either way it fleetingly gave me goose bumps.
After the shoot I was happy with the images and how the shoot worked out but then what? How will it be received?
To put a project together of this magnitude is actually a journey of years and I was always hopeful that it was going to achieve down publicity but with the situation the world finds itself in has put it in the limelight in a more major manner than I could ever have anticipated with media intention being intense with multiple interviews a day over the past few weeks and significant traffic to my site and social media.
I was interviewed by the Washington Post last week and I was asked what I hoped the viewer would take away and I said ‘curiosity’
I stand by that sentiment.