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Photographer brings American historical figures to life with portraits of their descendants

Shannon LaNier is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson. (Left: Rembrandt Peale/Right: Drew Gardner)

After finally agreeing last year to pose for a British photographer’s series about descendants of famous historical figures, Shannon LaNier knew there was no way he could put on a wig to complete the likeness of his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

Photographer Drew Gardner would have to “transform” him into Thomas Jefferson without it.

“There was absolutely no way that I wanted to become Jefferson — I’m not him,” said LaNier, 41, a morning news anchor for Houston television station CW39 and a ninth-generation direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson and one of his enslaved chambermaids, Sally Hemings.

“Jefferson wanted to be remembered for doing great things, but he didn’t have the guts and courage to do it,” he said. “He preached equality, but he was a hypocrite who didn’t practice it. He had more than 600 slaves throughout his lifetime.”

Perhaps if Jefferson had done more to show enslaving people was wrong, said LaNier, “we wouldn’t have a lot of the problems that we have today.”

During his photo shoot, “I wanted to hold a mirror to America’s face and say, ‘This is what this country has become,’ ” he said.

The result of LaNier’s session for Gardner’s “Descendants” series is featured in the July issue of Smithsonian Magazine, along with photos of 19th-century human rights activist Frederick Douglass and early suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, shown side-by-side with their modern-day descendants.

Since the photographs (and videos of the photo shoots) were revealed earlier this month, Gardner and his subjects said they have been inundated with emails and comments on social media, marveling at their resemblance to their famous ancestors.

“It’s been overwhelming,” said LaNier, who initially hesitated to participate “because I didn’t want it to be comical or buffoonish.”

“After talking to Drew, though, and seeing his vision and how much he believed in what he was doing, I thought, ‘Okay, this guy has the right mind-set,’ ” he said. LaNier said he was stunned by the resemblance in the side-by-side comparisons of him and Jefferson’s 1800 portrait, and he was equally taken aback by the mostly positive public reaction.

A video that he posted on Instagram showing his transformation into Jefferson has now been viewed more than 46,000 times.

Gardner is delighted that his American series has been well-received, “since it turns the whole ‘them and us’ friction into ‘us,’” he said.

“I have had a simply huge response and hope more people will consider who we are, how we got here, and that we are all a mix of races over the millennia,” said Gardner, 55, a photographer for 40 years who lives in Somerset, England. “What I want people to take away is curiosity.”

For the past 15 years, Gardner, a longtime history enthusiast, has spent much of his time focusing his lens on the direct descendants of famous historical figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth and Lisa Gherardini — better known as the Mona Lisa.

“One of the inspirations for starting this series was I hoped people would take more interest in the greatest celebrities in history, and not the ones who are celebrated today, many of whom have arguably achieved little of significance,” he said.

Gardner often spends months tracking down subjects for his photo projects, then re-creates the scene of their famous ancestors’ portraits or photographs while paying careful attention to small details such as the tapestries in the background, the books on the table or the medals on a uniform.

“The Internet makes it quite easy to track people down, and I then back up their lineage with careful research and working with genealogists and historical societies,” he said. “What intrigues me most about U.S. history is that so much of it is recent and present in everyday life. Ultimately, it’s very accessible.”

Gardner said he found Elizabeth Jenkins-Sahlin, the descendant of suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, after he came across an essay she had written at age 11 about her great-great-great-grandmother.

“Stanton was important to me because she was such an early women’s rights activist and really led the way internationally,” he said.

Gardner carefully styled Jenkins-Sahlin’s photo to resemble a young 1850s Stanton, down to her sausage curls, bonnet and brooch.

“It’s odd to step into the metaphorical shoes of an ancestor I’ve never met, especially when that ancestor is a famous historical figure and the shoes are hard to fill,” said Jenkins-Sahlin, 35, who lives in Stamford, Conn.

“I admire Elizabeth Cady Stanton for being the visionary and activist that she was,” she added. “I admire her leadership, her focus and her tenacity.”

Jenkins-Sahlin said she felt internal pressure to represent Stanton accurately at the photo shoot.

“Being asked to sit and depict Elizabeth Cady Stanton got me thinking a lot about her legacy and my own life,” she said. “I find myself wondering what my legacy will be and to what extent and in what ways it will honor hers.”

Her friends and relatives — including her own mother — did double-takes when they saw Gardner’s completed photo, said Jenkins-Sahlin.

“They wondered why the image of Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been printed twice, even though there were two distinct images,” she said. “I was impressed by Drew’s attention to detail.”

Frederick Douglass’s photo was probably the easiest to replicate, said Gardner, since his descendant, Kenneth B. Morris Jr., already bears a likeness to the abolitionist who escaped enslavement in 1838.

Growing up, Morris was frequently told he looked like his great-great-great grandfather, he said, although he is also descended from American educator and presidential adviser Booker T. Washington.

“My mom tells the story of how we went on a family trip to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, and I was standing next to a bust of Douglass,” he said. “The docent was giving a talk and she suddenly stopped and said, ‘Honey, has anyone ever told you that Kenny looks like Frederick Douglass?’”

Morris, who is co-founder of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, an anti-racism nonprofit, used to spend his childhood summers in Douglass’s beach house in Highland Beach, Md., he said, and he often felt his ancestor’s eyes following him whenever he walked past his larger-than-life portrait.

“I felt that steely glare like fire on the back of my neck,” said Morris. “So when I agreed to pose, that’s what came to mind. I thought, ‘This is what it’s going to feel like when I actually have the costume on.’ ”

When he saw his reflection in the mirror after Gardner’s hair and makeup team had completed his look with a gray-streaked wig and goatee, Morris said he immediately noticed the resemblance.

“I felt like the spirit of Frederick Douglass had entered me — he had embodied me,” he said. “It was a really great feeling.”

During the photo shoot, Morris said he thought of one of his favorite Douglass sentiments to help capture his essence.

“Frederick Douglass understood that he could use this new art of photography to make the case for equality,” he said. “ ‘When you look at a picture of me, you’re never going to deny that I’m a man worthy of freedom,’ Douglass said. ‘I never want to look like a happy, amiable, fugitive slave.’ ”

“So that’s what I was feeling,” said Morris. “The photo (that Gardner used) was taken after the Civil War. He looks like a leader leading his brethren to the promised land. He looks very confident. I feel that the entire team helped to capture that in my photograph.”

Although there is heartache behind the photos that he and LaNier reenacted of their ancestors, they both can see positivity, too.

“I tell my children that we come from greatness — from kings and queens in Africa,” said LaNier. “But I also tell them that we come from the strongest survivors to ever live.”

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