Europe began as the main focus of “The Descendants,” a series of works created by British photographer Drew Gardner. About 15 years ago, Gardner started tracking down and photographing the descendants of some of Europe’s most famous people, including Lisa del Giocondo (best known as Mona Lisa), Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, and Charles Dickens. Then, as many have in the past, Gardner looked to the west to consider the people whose ancestries can be traced back to key players in US history.
“For all its travails,” Gardner told Smithsonian Magazine, “America is the most brilliant idea.” In the end, Gardner photographed three people whose lineage stems from three key figures: Frederick Douglass; Elizabeth Cady Stanton; and Thomas Jefferson. The photographs are included in Gardner’s American addition to “The Descendants” which were published in Smithsonian Magazine’s July issue. Side-by-side portraits show each prominent American alongside their descendant dressed in period clothes emulating their ancestor. The purpose? To challenge the notion that history is always “white and male.” While Gardner began work on the American editions of the series have been in the works for some time now, the timing of their publication is remarkable.
Gardner’s process in creating the photography series, begins with a lot of research. After selecting a historical figure, Gardner’s search for a direct descendant, preferably around the same age as an original portrait of the subject, begins and it’s often futile work. When he is successful, his work isn’t over as he still has to make contact with and convince the unsuspecting party to sit for his photographs, not to mention the effort that goes into costuming and creating the perfect recreation. “Not many people say no, but when they do it’s quite disappointing,” Gardner told Artnet News.
Luckily, Kenneth Morris, the great-great-great-grandson of Douglass, Elizabeth Jenkins-Sahlin, the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Stanton, and Shannon LaNier, the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Jefferson, all took Gardner up on the offer. Each of the resulting images pack its own, unique punch, revealing another facet of the heritage that has been handed down the family tree of each of Gardner’s subjects.
Morris told SM that he’s often been told he resembles Douglass, who was a slave that escaped and became a renowned author and social reformist who played a significant role in the first for racial equality. In fact, Morris disclosed that his facial dimensions are strikingly similar to the dimensions of Douglass’ death mask. In Gardner’s photo, Morris recreates perhaps one of the most iconic images of Douglass, even dawning a specially made wig and beard boasting Douglass’ grey strip of hair. Morris helped compile Picturing Frederick Douglass, a 2015 illustrated biography that explores Douglass’ efforts to create his own image, rebuffing gross stereotypes of Black people of the time that were perpetuated by cartoonists. For his efforts, Douglass was potentially the most photographed American of the 19th century with over 160 known photographs. According to Morris, seeing himself dressed as his ancestor was a transformative experience, a sentiment echoed by Jenkins-Sahlin.
“I was really trying to imagine the pressure she felt,” Jenkins-Sahlin told SM about her experience of being photographed by Gardner, something she was initially reluctant to be a part of. “This was when she was still very young and had her life’s work ahead of her.” Throughout her own life, Jenkins-Sahlin has been involved with the legacy of and impacted by her ancestor’s life. In 1998, she was part of the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention in the US, which Stanton helped organise. At age 34, though, Jenkins-Sahlin was focusing on her own sense of identity when she was approached by Gardner. The process ultimately allowed Jenkins-Sahlin to reflect upon the psyche of her mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, a woman, who for her time, was extremely progressive.
For LaNier, the process of representing a descendant of the third president of the United States was somewhat different. “I didn’t want to become Jefferson,” LaNier, who also initially declined Gardner’s offer, told SM. LaNier’s lineage traces back to Jefferson’s infamous relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman owned by Jefferson who is thought have mothered at least six children by Jefferson. He agreed to sit for Gardner and wear period clothing but refused to wear a wig as to not adopt the appearance of period white men. His relation to Jefferson is not without issues and one with which he has mixed feelings. “He was a brilliant man who preached equality, but he didn’t practice it,” said LaNier. “He owned people. And now I’m here because of it.”
Today, LaNier attends family reunions at Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, and has co-authored a book called Jefferson’s Children: The Story of One American Family. “You had the side of Jefferson’s family that descend from his wife Martha and then the side that descended from his slave Sally Hemings,” LaNier said in a video capturing the process of Gardner’s photograph. “But now, luckily, we’ve all come together. We recognise each other as family, and, you know, we’re moving forward with the story of us being family.”
LaNier, Jenkins-Sahlin, and Morris’ participation in “The Descendants” speak to the legacies left by Jefferson, Stanton, and Douglass, respectively, both notorious and celebrated. During the process, LaNier said: “My ancestor had his dreams, and now it’s up to all of us living in America today to make sure no one is excluded from the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” His statement directly references Jefferson, but his sentiment reflects the nature of both Stanton and Douglass’ legacies, all of which Gardner hopes to have captured.