Originally written for Jungle Drums in 2011.
Argentinian photographer Irina Werning’s project Back to the Future, exploring the relationship between our present and past selves, has been taking the internet by storm.
The stunning project sets out to recreate childhood portraits down to the tiniest detail. Whilst not a new phenomenon, Werning’s project has captured imaginations far and wide, including the Guardian publishing a similar gallery article on British comedians.
Werning’s attention to detail is breathtaking. Whilst humorous, the Guardian article that replicated the aesthetic of her work ultimately disappointed (being more to amuse than to provoke thought), as it didn’t display anywhere near the same level of craft. It is clear from Werning’s collection that significant time and effort has been put in to ensure that each detail is accurate. From wallpaper to clothing, to strands of hair and facial expressions, this truly is a labour of love.
Werning says that this project has made her realise that she’s ‘a bit obsessive’. It has to be said that this obsession has led to some truly beautiful images that not only perfectly recreate the visual element of the original photograph, but also reinforce the intimacy of the bonds between families and physical places, and importantly our own sense of self.
Clarisse D’Arcimoles has also turned her hand to recreating family portraits in her project Un-Possible Retour, with the same gloriously obsessive attention to detail as that shown by Werning. The ‘making of’ video on her website is fascinating viewing, as it offers an insight into the painstaking process of recreating images with such accuracy. Her brother’s deteriorating patience throughout the process seems to make him regress to the little boy he is trying so hard to re-imagine and enact, and in doing so, she captures his innate childishness.
Bobby Neel Adams’ Family Tree assumes a similar approach. His project sees photographs of fathers and sons and mothers and daughters superimposed on one another and then manually torn to offer a visual representation of the strength of DNA. The resulting images certainly don’t have the same charm as Werning or D’Arcimoles, but it’s a fascinating study into genetic similarity.
All these projects play upon the current cultural obsession with nostalgia and revisiting our past. Be it through the ubiquitous Hipstamatic iPhone images that recreate the charming scratched and light-distorted prints of analogue film (typical of and glorified by Lomography), or the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, there is no question about the popularity of the past.
As Werning herself observes, ‘most of us are fascinated by [an image’s] retro look but to me, it’s imagining how people would feel and look like if they were to reenact them today’. Her collection offers a palimpsest of the subjects’ histories, imposing the present onto the past whilst keeping both intact.
We cannot recreate the past. Indeed, D’Arcimoles states on her website, ‘in the comparison I unavoidably failed, we have to fail. There is no return into time’. What wecan do is explore the history that came between the images, and celebrate the bridge between our past and present.
Werning’s second instalment of Back to the Future will be available online in June, but in the meantime she’s in search of willing participants in NY and Europe, contact details available on her website.