What is it about iconic photographs that captivates our imaginations long after the last tank has rolled into Tiananmen, Titanic set sail, or Apollo 11 astronauts left their footprints across the moon?
Even if you weren’t alive at the time, these images are stamped in our minds with all the familiarity of a family photo album.
So when Swiss artists Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger set about recreating the world’s most famous photos in miniature models, the pressure was on to ensure every tuft of cloud, clump of soil, and tilt of the head was true to its original.
“Everybody knows these pictures – they stand for a special moment in history,” said Cortis, who when not creating intricate scenes out of cardboard and cotton wool, works as a high-end advertising and magazine photographer with Sonderegger.
“You can divide iconic pictures into two different kinds – there are the ones we only know from books because they’re so old.. And then there are the more recent ones, like 9/11, where everybody remembers what they were doing at the time. When people look at these pictures, the feelings are more personal.”
The ambitious project, called “Icons,” started with a joke about copying one of the world’s most valuable photographs – Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II. When it was auctioned for $4.3 million in 2011, the seemingly simple image of Germany’s River Rhein was the most expensive photograph ever sold.
The artistic duo have since recreated around a dozen more famous images over the last three years. When bringing to life Sam Shere’s 1937 photograph of the Hindenburg disaster, plumes of cotton wool were dramatically back lit with a light bulb to emulate the moment of explosion.
Buzz Aldrin’s 1969 image of his own bootprint on the moon took a little more trial-and-error from the inventive pair, who initially used sand, and then switched to concrete, to get the lunar texture just right.
No small feat
The most labor-intensive model of all, was Stuart Franklin’s 1989 “Tank Man,” a picture which captured the eerie moment a lone figure obstructed the path of military tanks during student protests in Tiananmen Square.
“We bought the tanks on eBay from China,” explained Cortis. “They were these model kits which we had to put together.”
“We had to build around seven or eight tanks – the first one was fun, the second one was ok, and then after that it was just hard work,” he said of the scene which took two weeks to complete.
But by far the most challenging object to imitate is people – hence why their faces are so often obscured in Cortis and Sonderegger’s models. Ease of creation, rather than emotional attachment, has so far been the deciding factor when choosing a photograph.
That said, the artists still trawled through countless toy stores on their mission to find a figurine with the same toes as the hooded prisoner in the 2003 Abu Ghraib image.
Meanwhile, the balaclava-clad kidnapper depicted in Ludwig Wegmann’s photograph of the 1972 Munich Olympics, was created with playdough and women’s stockings.
Much like a doll’s house or ship in a bottle, perhaps part of the allure of these models is the wonder in real world objects shrunk to the palm of your hand.
“All these tiny things, I think everybody likes it,” agreed Cortis. “Maybe it’s like remembering childhood when you played with little things.”
The pair have just finished making a miniature version of U.S. President John Kennedy’s 1963 assassination in Dallas, and Cortis is at a loss for words as to why so many of our best-known photographs are also some of humanity’s darkest.
“It’s not that we had it in our mind to recreate negative pictures. But I think there just seem to be more negative iconic pictures, than positive ones,” he said.
“But there is hope. History is still going on. And the project’s not finished yet.”