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Creating a Century of Portraits in My Living Room

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For the last 12 months, I have been working on a personal photo project. The goal of this project was to recreate a portrait from every decade from the 1920s until now. Each picture would highlight the candid life of someone who was living in that era versus what they were really feeling inside. I called this project a “Century of Portraits.”

1920s: Epitomized by the aftermath of WW I, she waits for her husband to return to her and their two children. He does not return.

1930s: Color taints movement, taints power, taints talent. He moves, he dreams, he plays; he is still not enough, is less than, is not as talented as.
1940s: Dressing up for a lofty accounting job that doesn’t exist, he wonders when his time will finally come.
1950s: She keeps the house neat, the kids fed, and the husband happy. In her depression, she imagines a different life and only the glare of the TV brings her solace.
1960s: The reality of the war in Vietnam sets in at home when he is drafted and he is motivated to reject the national military complex and war through protest.
1970s: In midst of pivotal political events, a college student sits in his room, neglecting what’s happening around him and thinks to himself: “politics don’t affect me.”
1980s: A yuppie moves to the city confident and with his prospects on the rise; his future and his smile is bright as day.
1990s: A new era in music ushers more inclusive and more diverse artists and beats, but headphones cannot tune out the exclusive realities still faced by people of color.
2000s: Video games are his release and his escape from the world. He realizes that video games are not his escape from the world, they have become his world.
2010s: A perfect filtered life on display masks a shallow depression and darkness. But the very enabler, the phone, is an addiction held close to the heart even when there is #nofilter.

Behind the Scenes

When starting this project, the scope of it and the work that it entailed seemed like a daunting task, and it was. The only thing I had available to me was an 8x8ft living room, a clear vision, and a team of people who made it possible.

Lighting

For this project, I used a wide range of lighting, from continuous lights to strobes. Each image was carefully crafted to reflect the mood of that time period. Whether that be hard light or soft, focused light or ambient fill. The light in each shot was made using specular modifiers only, to sculpt the face and keep it consistent throughout.

Camera

Keeping consistency in mind, I shot the entire project on a Canon 5D Mark III and paired it with a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART lens. This combination gave me reliable results and portrayed the environment in the best way.

Set Design

During the duration of this project, I took nearly 12,000 pictures and narrowed it down to just 20. In the final pictures I chose to display, each image played its own unique role in making a coherent body of work. Since I come from a filmmaking background, I wanted to bring that previous knowledge into this work.

Throughout my filmmaking career, I followed the mese on scene phenomenon quite adamantly. When following this theory, It ensures that everything in the frame has a purpose. Before embarking on this project, the majority of my work were headshots, but this time when I focused on the bigger picture, it forced me to pay attention to every minuscule detail and determine if it was enhancing it or taking away from it.

In this behind the scenes video see a glimpse into how we made the pictures in this series possible. The video shows my team transforming my living room into a scene from the 1920s:

Closing Thoughts

After pouring so much much time and energy into this project, there were a few things I realized. Most importantly, the success of a project is not about how you fail, but how you pick yourself up and push through it. So many times I wanted to throw in the towel because the goal just seemed so out of reach, but each image I took and each shoot I completed, it brought me one step closer to completing the project.

When I took the last photo in the series, I was overflowed with emotion; a sense of accomplishment, sadness, overwhelming joy. At the end of the day, I was fortunate to walk away with a body of work I can now present with the world. It is from this project that I was able to discover my voice in my art.


About the author: Eli Dreyfuss is a photographer, filmmaker, and artist. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Dreyfuss’ work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube.


Credits: Creative Director: Eli Dreyfuss. Assistants: Markus Cohn, Haiden Hill, Roberto Benepaste, Elisheva Phillips, Sage Picetti, Selethel Plotkin. Makeup: Shayna Plotkin. Models: Alison Liquori, Sage Picetti, Elishevva Phillips, Elyssa Jerome, Naomi Bluth, Victor Andrew, Eduard Gilles, Jonah Keehn

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