To prepare for a recent portrait, Shannon LaNier pulled a black coat over his head and wrapped a thick, layered collar around his neck, a costume to match what Thomas Jefferson wore in an iconic 18th-century painting. The Houston news anchor was participating in an ongoing series by British photographer Drew Gardner that recreates photographs, paintings, and other images of historical figures by styling their descendants in similar garb. LaNier’s photograph is particularly significant, though, because he’s the sixth-great grandson of Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, who the third U.S. president enslaved and forced to bear his children, a story that’s long been left out of historical narratives.
Titled The Descendants, the project is a visual excavation of Western history that questions what remains after generations pass. The relatives of historically significant people are, for the most part, out of the spotlight, but as the photographer notes, their ancestors’ “DNA is walking down the street.”
The project began about 15 years ago when Gardner’s mother mentioned that he resembled his grandfather. Although the current project has diverged from simple likeness—the photographer notes that similar features are not a requirement when searching for descendants—he hopes to inspire questions about people’s legacies. “I am not saying they look like their forebears,” he notes. “I’m encouraging a debate. I want to provoke a conversation that makes people curious about history.” Since its inception, he’s photographed relatives of Frederick Douglass, Lisa del Giocondo, Berthe Morisot, and Napoleon.
Gardner’s criteria for choosing subjects is strict: the historical figure must be widely known to the public and have made a significant impact that goes beyond simple celebrity. The next step involves tracking down paintings, photographs, and other realistic representations of the person, which eliminates a considerable number of prospects—originally, Gardner hoped to recreate an image of Pocahontas but soon realized that only a woodcut existed. The photographer then searches for living family members, sometimes working through more than a dozen generations to find someone within 15 years of age of the forebear. Often with the help of museums and other institutions dedicated to historical preservation, he contacts the relative to ask if they’ll pose for a portrait.
To maintain the integrity of the original image, the costumes and props are vintage, when possible. Some elements, though, like the massive, rusted chains forming the backdrop of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s portrait from 1857, don’t exist anymore. When the authentic items aren’t available, Gardner recreates them in physical or digital form.
For LaNier’s portrait, though, the situation was different. While he is dressed similarly to Jefferson, he diverges because he chose to forgo the wig his sixth-great grandfather wore. “I didn’t want to become Jefferson,” he told Smithsonian Magazine. The result is a striking set of portraits that explore historical truths. “Jefferson may have been a founding father, but I am an image of what his family has now become,” LaNier says in an interview about the experience. “You look at my family and you see every color in there, as you will see from many family’s that have come from slavery.”
Although the pandemic has changed his immediate plans for upcoming recreations, Gardner is hoping to release more pieces in 2021, which you can follow on Instagram. For those interested in a behind-the-scenes look at his process, Smithsonian Magazine has released videos of the Douglass, Jefferson, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton shoots.
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What Will Be Remembered in the Face of All That is Forgotten is a sculptural neon work by the New York City-based artist Tavares Strachan made between 2014-2015. The five-foot-tall piece includes pulsating neon that mimics the racing of blood through veins, stainless steel to hold the skeleton in place, and a total of seven transformers. The flashing circulatory system is a glowing reminder of English scientist Rosalind Franklin’s contributions to the field of science, mainly the discovery of DNA’s molecular structures. The work was originally included in the solo exhibition Seeing is Forgetting the Thing that You Saw at Anthony Meier Fine Arts in San Francisco, which examined individuals whose names have been omitted from common accounts of history despite their great accomplishments.
Strachan, in partnership with LACMA Art + Technology Lab and SpaceX, also recently launched a sculpture honoring Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first African-American to train as an astronaut with NASA. Although Lawrence never made it into space, a 24-karat gold urn with his bust titled “Enoch” will orbit the Earth for seven years in a sun-synchronous orbit. You can see more of Strachan’s sculptural work, and keep up-to-date on the location of Enoch, on Instagram.
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Just a few weeks ago we covered the amazing 3D-printed portraits created by artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, who uses genetic clues from found DNA to determine an estimation of what that person might look like. In this short documentary filmed by TED’s Kari Mulholland, we learn a lot more about what goes on behind the scenes as Dewey-Hagborg utilizes the facilities at Genspace in New York to create each of her DNA portraits.
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You’re walking down a street in Brooklyn, gnawing on a piece of gum that’s past the point of flavorful.. In a hurry, you spit it on the ground without a second thought and continue about your day. Hours later, a mysterious woman arrives, surreptitiously collecting the sticky gum from the sidewalk and dropping it into a clear plastic bag which she then carefully labels. Flash forward a month later: you’re walking through an art gallery, and there, mounted on the wall, is a familiar face staring back at you. Astonishingly (or terrifyingly), it’s a 3D print of your face generated from the DNA you left behind on that random piece of gum that now appears in a petri dish just below the portrait. A few years ago this would have seemed like science fiction, the stuff of films like Gattaca, but to information artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, it’s how she makes her artwork here in 2013.
They say inspiration can strike anywhere. For Dewey-Hagborg, it happened in a therapy session. While staring at a framed print on the wall, she fixated on a tiny crack in the glass into which a small hair had become lodged. As her mind wandered, she imagined who this seemingly insignificant hair belonged to, and, more specifically, what they might look like. After that day, she became keenly aware of the genetic trail left by every person in their daily life, and began to question what physical characteristics could be identified through the DNA left behind on a piece of gum or cigarette butt.
Stranger Visions is the result of her fascinating, if slightly disconcerting, line of questioning and experimentation: 3D printed portraits based on DNA samples taken from objects found on the streets of Brooklyn. Dewey-Hagborg worked with a DIY biology lab called Genspace, where she met a number of biologists who taught her everything she now knows about molecular biology and DNA. Via an interview with the artist:
So I extract the DNA in the lab and then I amplify certain regions of it using a technique called PCR – Polymerase Chain Reaction. This allows me to study certain regions of the genome that tend to vary person to person, what are called SNPs or Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms.
I send the results of my PCR reactions off to a lab for sequencing and what I get back are basically text files filled with sequences of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, the nucleotides that compose DNA. I align these using a bioinformatics program and determine what allele is present for a particular SNP on each sample.
Then I feed this information into a custom computer program I wrote which takes all these values which code for physical genetic traits and parameterizes a 3d model of a face to represent them. For example gender, ancestry, eye color, hair color, freckles, lighter or darker skin, and certain facial features like nose width and distance between eyes are some of the features I am in the process of studying.
I add some finishing touches to the model in 3d software and then export it for printing on a 3d printer. I use a Zcorp printer which prints in full color using a powder type material, kind of like sand and glue.
The resulting portraits are bizarre approximations of anonymous people who unknowingly left their genetic material on a random city street. So how accurate are the faces created from this genetic experiment? The artist likes to say they have a “family resemblance” and no, unlike the scenario depicted above, a person has never recognized themselves in any of her exhibitions. Yet. There are some things such as age which are virtually impossible to determine from DNA alone, so Dewey-Hagborg casts each portrait as if the person were around 25 years old.
Dewey-Hagborg will be giving a talk with a pop-up exhibit at Genspace on June 13th, and QF Gallery on Long Island will host a body of her work from June 29th through July 13th. You can follow the artist via her website and also her blog. All imagery courtesy the artist. (via smithsonian)
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