History’s famous photos reimagined in miniature

A new book from Thames & Hudson features more than 30 model versions of historic images hand-crafted by Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger. We speak to the photographers about bringing the book to life

The last surviving photo of the RMS Titanic at sea before it hit an iceberg and sank during its maiden voyage. An image of Edwin Aldrin’s dusty bootprint pressed into lunar soil during the Apollo moon landings. A still taken from a video showing clouds of ominous, black smoke billowing from the World Trade Center during 9/11. Most of us will have seen these snapshots of significant events hundreds, if not thousands of times since they were taken.

As well as becoming enduring symbols for some of humanity’s greatest achievements and atrocities, images like these often take on a life of their own, spawning countless homages and parody versions over the years.

Pg. 31 Plates, Making of ‘The Last Photo of the Titanic Afloat’ (by Francis Browne, 1912), 2014 © Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger, 2018

Photography duo Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger have taken a slightly different approach to paying tribute to history’s most persisent images with their Double Take project, which involves them recreating individual photos as miniaturised dioramas and then re-shooting them. The two photographers first met while both studying at Zürich University of the Arts (ZHDK). After teaming up on various projects during university, they decided to keep working together as partners after graduating.

It was during a quiet period in the summer of 2012 that they decided to put their model-making and lighting skills to the test and recreate Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II photo – which happened to have just been sold at auction for a record $4.3 million. “We were doing a lot of commercial jobs after university and during summer there wasn’t many jobs coming in, so we started the project as a joke,” says Cortis. “We thought ‘What can we do? Let’s copy the most expensive photograph in the world!’”

Pg. 73 Plates, Making of ‘AS11-40-5878’ (by Edwin Aldrin, 1969), 2014 © Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger, 2018

What started out as a way for Cortis and Sonderegger to hone their playful brand of visual humour has culminated in dozens of painstakingly created model dioramas that reimagine the landmark political events and cultural moments from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Now, Thames & Hudson is publishing a photo book of the duo’s work, which features 20 of their existing model creations and 19 brand new pieces. Choosing which photos to include has been a careful balancing act of representing both comedy and tragedy, as well as assessing whether reconstructing a particular visual in model form is actually feasible. “I think both of us have favourite images that are stuck in our heads, and we always talk a lot about which image will come next. We can’t do every famous photo, and in the end it’s just whether we really want to do it,” says Sonderegger.

Pg. 35 Plates, Making of ‘Five Soldiers Silhouetted at the Battle of Broodseinde’ (by Ernest Brooks, 1917), 2013 © Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger, 2018

Examples featured in the book depict everything from the devastation wreaked by an atomic bomb codenamed Fat Man dropped by the US Air Force on the Japanese sea port of Nagasaki in 1945, to a scene from the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch where Marilyn Monroe’s character steps onto a grate in the sidewalk, resulting in her eye-catching white dress blowing up and exposing her legs. Models like these can take up to three weeks of non-stop work to bring to life, and typically need to be between five and eight metres deep to work with the perspective of the camera – dominating much of the space in their Zurich studio in the process.

After coming to a joint decision on which image to attempt, the two photographers discuss which materials and techniques are most suitable before getting to the fun part: experimenting. “We are both like two kids playing with toys in our studio,” says Sonderegger. “We love explosions, we love special effects.” On a typical day the space is littered with various different tools, sticky tape, craft knives, pots of paint, paper and ink. Some parts of the models are bought and then painted or partially destroyed to mimic an object from the original photos, others are built entirely from scratch.

Pg. 63 Plates, Making of ‘Milk Drop Coronet’ (by Harold Edgerton, 1957), 2016 © Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger, 2018

There are also certain features that the duo admits are notoriously tricky to replicate regardless of how much they practice – namely figures. “If you don’t do a landscape perfectly it doesn’t look so bad, but if you do a person or a portrait badly it looks ridiculous,” says Sonderegger. “It’s even more important if you take a war image, for example, and you make a reconstruction that looks ridiculous – it’s just not going to work.”

While Double Take is clearly a novel, playful nod to the art of the homage, Cortis and Sonderegger are also hoping that the book will act as a reminder that photography as a medium is a construction of real-life events, and not reality itself. “There have been some images in the history of photography that are fake or obviously composed, but now with the digital revolution and fake news you can’t necessarily believe photography anymore,” says Sonderegger. “[In this project] you see practically all of the materials we used. Doing this not only gives the illusion of something, but also the disillusion of something. It should start a dialogue in people’s heads about what is actually true.”

Pg. 33 Plates, Making of ‘Grand Prix A.C. F.’ (by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, 1913), 2016 © Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger, 2018

Double Take: Reconstructing the History of Photography is published by Thames & Hudson and costs £24.95. You can order copies here