Jay Miller descendant of Richard Oliver

The Descendants: Technology Collapses Time

One of the best things about being in the creative arts is that you never know what might spark inspiration—an overheard conversation, a fleeting image, a snippet of a song. In the case of photographer Drew Gardner, it came from his mother telling him that he looked like his grandfather. At the time, he didn’t see the resemblance. But it made him think.

Over the course of the past 20 years, the seed his mother planted with that one innocuous comment has borne fruit in the form of a sprawling project titled “The Descendants.” Drew has recreated historical photographs of notable figures featuring the ancestors of the great- (or great-great-great) nieces, nephews, and grandchildren alive today, captured in the same poses and period attire.

Using large-format tintype cameras dating back to the late 19th century to take the images—while documenting the process on video using the FUJIFILM X-H2S and Frame.io Camera to Cloud—Drew has collapsed time by employing yesterday’s and today’s technology to bring remarkable stories to light.

White and black

The original idea of the project was to accurately recreate the photos of historically significant people with their contemporary descendants. Early subjects included Winston Churchill, Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Malcolm Campbell. But as Drew continued his project over the years, he realized that most of the historic figures were white (and predominantly male), which led him to ponder what role non-white people had played during those times. Especially in America.

“A few years ago I recreated portraits of Thomas Jefferson—with one of his Black descendants—and Frederick Douglass,” Drew says. “Both are obviously well-known historical figures, and that sparked my curiosity into some lesser-known figures, like Black Civil War soldiers.”

According to Drew, it is estimated that approximately four million photographs were taken during the American Civil War. “Yet I was only able to find fewer than 200 named, identified photographs of Black American Civil War combatants,” he says. 

The result of his research and dedication to the project led Smithsonian Magazine to commission him to create Black descendants’ portraits for inclusion in the January/February 2024 issue to celebrate Black History month. From Civil War drummer David Miles Moore to US Army Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith, Drew has persevered to raise awareness of those who have dutifully served this country as enslaved volunteers. 

It’s perhaps no accident that Drew’s original inspiration for becoming a photojournalist was Sir Donald McCullin. “I read a book by him and wanted to do what he did,” Drew says. McCullin famously took black-and-white photos of war zones and places of civil unrest or extreme conditions of poverty, stating that he felt that “color takes you on another journey.” He was, of course, referring to color film, but in this case there’s a particular resonance to that statement.

Leaving school at age 15, Drew has spent the past 40 years traveling through 50 countries covering, like McCullin, wars and disaster sites. It’s impossible to do that without developing a deep sense of humanity, and Drew says, “I feel so lucky. The people I have met and the places I have traveled to have given me a perspective that informs everything I do in my daily life.”

His peak experience? The award-winning photographer cites meeting Nelson Mandela, which provided added impetus for highlighting the Black experience in Civil War America.

A new perspective

Drew began his research in places like the Library of Congress and other photographic collections around the US. He then worked with the genealogy volunteer group WikiTree, who helped him locate the descendants of the subjects in the photographs he’d found. 

“There are thousands and thousands of photographs of white people, but I found less than 200 photographs of identified Black American Civil War combatants. Of those 200, with the help of the team at WikiTree, I found the direct descendants of 25,” Drew says. “And of those 25, we managed to encourage six people to be involved. It’s all been fact checked by the Smithsonian. They have sat down with me, the researcher, and WikiTree, and they’ve gone through every line. We can verify 100 percent that these are the direct descendants.”

While there are well-known figures among his subjects (in addition to Frederick Douglass he’s also featured Harriet Tubman’s descendant) Drew was committed to uncovering the contributions of more obscure figures who deserve the attention that Drew has brought. In fact, he’s included Frederick Douglass’s lesser-known son Lewis, who enlisted in the military as soon as he was allowed. 

Not only has his project given the actual people their rightful place in history, it’s also provided the descendants the opportunity to have a better grasp on their own background and the contributions (and sacrifices) their ancestors have made in an effort to ensure a better future for generations to come. In some cases it’s also inspired them to carry on their forebear’s work, since clearly the fight for equality is far from over.

A different lens

For Drew, one of the more thrilling aspects of documenting the Civil War was the idea that the art of photography itself was in its infancy, and taking photographic equipment out to war zones then was literally an incredibly heavy lift. The tintype cameras were large, bulky things that had to be loaded onto wagons to transport them from place to place. In that sense, Drew was not just recreating the images, he was also recreating the experience of what it was like to be a photographer more than 150 years ago. 

Using a late-19th century camera made out of wood with big focusing wheels that’s roughly the size of a refrigerator presents some very different challenges for a modern-day photographer. For one thing, their subject has to hold very still because the exposure time is so lengthy—up to 40 seconds, Drew has stated in the Chris Klimek podcast “There’s More to That.” On the day the photo was taken, the time presented a special challenge for 9-year-old Neikoye Flowers, who portrayed his great-great-great-grandfather, David Miles Moore, the “Drummer Boy” of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry unit. Drew’s team took great pains to recreate the costumes, the props, and the environment as faithfully as possible—even down to the itchy wool of the suit Neikoye had to wear, making it that much harder for him to stand very still for nearly a minute.

Drew also collaborated with the non-profit Penumbra Foundation, who provided valuable expertise in the tintype process. “It involves coating pieces of aluminum—not actual tin—with a silver solution that has a sensitivity of less than one ISO,” he explains. “Once you have exposed the plate, you whisk it down to the dark room, and it’s only there that you find out if you’ve been successful or not in establishing the exposure, which changes throughout the day as you’re working in a daylight studio.”

But using the vintage camera was essential to achieving the right image quality. “The way it records the skin, it is quite unique and it makes eyes very clear, very white. It gives certain shapes and a feel that is unlike any other photography,” Drew states.

Jay Miller is clear-eyed about his ancestor, Richard Oliver. Photo by Drew Gardner.

Old meets new

And he would know. In his 40-plus years of working as a photographer, he began his career working with modern film cameras first—and still occasionally shoots personal projects on a 1950s 4 x 5 Speed Graphic camera. But for the past 20 years he’s used digital cameras and is particularly enthusiastic about the FUJIFILM X-H2S. 

For an on-the-go photographer, having a camera that is light, versatile, and easy to use is the ideal scenario. “It’s a really special camera and it covers so many bases,” Drew says. “It’s truly amazing for video, shooting in a wide range of codecs, and is excellent at 120 fps and 4K. It’s also a really capable stills camera, all whilst being ultra portable, capable, and durable. It has a beautiful image quality, it’s got a perfect balance of analog and digital controls while still having heaps of soul, and is just a joy to use. After all, photography should be fun.”

You get a real sense of how much fun Drew has as a photographer. Photo by Drew Gardner.

Beyond “just” capturing the photos themselves, Drew wanted to document the process and the subjects’ stories and reactions. That’s why, at the completely opposite end of the photography spectrum from the tintype camera, the new in-camera Frame.io integration with the FUJIFILM X-H2S was “somewhat of a game changer” Drew says. 

Drew initially became aware of Frame.io during BSC 2023 in London when his friend at Fujifilm, Senior Project Manager Justin Stailey, was working with the Frame.io team to demonstrate it. He immediately grasped the value of the workflow. 

Being able to shoot the video footage and instantly view what he’d captured was one thing. But to then share it with his creative collaborators in far-flung locations was another. While Drew was shooting in Atlanta and New York, his editor was back in England and his music composer was in Finland. The team could quickly ensure that the footage would tell the story he’d conceived and Drew had an instant backup of his footage without having to stop to download camera cards. 

The new in-camera Frame.io integration with the FUJIFILM X-H2S was somewhat of a game changer.

“It made the whole process so much more seamless and it meant that I wasn’t uploading files into the night, so it’s fair to say that on a big shoot it was saving me many hours a day and taking the worry out of backing files up,” Drew states. “It gives me a remarkable amount of freedom in that the other members of my team get to see what I’m doing as I’m doing it, without me getting into lengthy communications, which is also a real time saver. It’s all just in Frame.io and it has been brilliant.” 

Worth more than words

Even though the technology is our story, it’s not “the” story. The real story is what these photographs mean to the families, to Drew, and to the public. Drew began this project with the intention to educate and to inspire, but the gratification of seeing how the descendants have reacted to their experience is almost beyond words.

If you watch the videos, you’ll see how they react to seeing themselves in the same poses, wearing the same garb as their ancestors. The modern-day descendants—many of whom had little (or no) idea that they came from families in which their ancestors are noteworthy historical figures—display a  combination of awe, pride, and recognition. 

A project like this doesn’t make a photographer wealthy. If anything, funding the work has been somewhere between a struggle and a sacrifice over the two decades that Drew’s been working on it. But what it has given him is a sense of contribution at a time when people seem to pay less attention to each other and to history. 

“I wanted to take a different look at the world with my photography and film work,” Drew says. “There are so many photographs that have been taken and I wanted to do things in a way that is completely different and really provokes conversation. The Black Civil War “Descendants” is a pinnacle in my career to date. At the shoot, all these people were talking about their histories, and it made me think about how much it would help society in the United States if more people could come together and have a better understanding of their shared history.”

Closing the gap between time and distance is what Frame.io Camera to Cloud allowed Drew to do functionally. But if it’s in the service of closing the gap between people and ideologies, we are humbled and grateful to be a small part of that effort. 

Lisa McNamara

Lisa McNamara is Frame.io's senior content writer and a frequent contributor to The Frame.io Insider. She has worked in film and video post-production approximately since dinosaurs roamed the planet.

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