People who are curious about their family history might sign up for a genealogy website or flip through old photo albums to gain insight into their families’ pasts. But Peruvian artist Christian Fuchs takes his research to a whole new level—the photographer temporarily transforms himself into each of his ancestors.
Fuchs re-creates his forefathers’ portraits using his own face as the canvas. He studies every detail of a family member’s portrait, from the posture to the jewelry. He then works with hairdressers, makeup artists, jewelers, and tailors to plan his transformation. He photographs himself imitating a figure’s exact pose and facial expression under extremely bright light, making his powdered skin appear painted.
The artist spends months studying an ancestor’s physical appearance and his or her personal narrative. Fuchs reads letters written to and by his family members to further understand the lives they lived.
This research began when Fuchs was a young boy. His grandparents raised him and his sister. His grandmother told him stories about their relatives from Chile and Germany. Fuchs was always surrounded by portraits and objects that had been in the family for up to five generations. “As a child, I looked at the portraits . . . if I didn't know the names of the characters, I invented them,” Fuchs says. “I remember watching them for hours and feeling that they were watching me back . . . and eventually that led to my reinterpretations of them.”
The artist was first inspired to impersonate his ancestors while looking at an 1830 portrait of his great-great-great-great-grandmother Eleanora Chee. Fuchs wondered: If he and Eleanora shared the same genes, could he make himself look like her? Fuchs went to the hairdresser and asked to have his hair pinned up in ringlets. He discovered that he could in fact look like Eleanora, and decided he would re-create her portrait, (above).
Typically, Fuchs spends three to five hours with a makeup artist, who paints his face to match the portrait he’s imitating. The makeup artist often applies layers of liquid latex to Fuchs’s face to replicate the facial contours of the figure Fuchs is impersonating.
Sometimes the process takes even longer. To portray his great-great-great-grandfather, an adventurous traveler named Carl Schilling, Fuchs waited more than a year to grow a grizzly beard. When Fuchs’s beard matched the length of Carl’s in the portrait, Fuchs dyed it white. The transformation was so convincing that when Fuchs went out in public, some people mistook the 37-year-old for an elderly man, (left).
Fuchs has re-created 11 ancestral portraits so far and plans to transform and photograph himself many more times. But the artist is especially determined to portray one family member in particular in the near future: his grandmother Catalina del Carmen, who first introduced Fuchs to his ancestors’ captivating portraits and narratives, and who passed away late last year. “It will be really hard to do her justice,” he says. “She was so pretty and had a much smaller nose than me, but I definitely want to try.”