When most artists decide to do portraits of their family, they ask their parents or siblings to pose for them. Laurel Nakadate, however, took a DNA test and began corresponding with strangers on websites who shared her DNA.
Nakadate is of Japanese-American lineage and said looking at the DNA from her maternal side unlocked the complex backgrounds shared by most Americans.
“My mother’s DNA revealed that, as with most Americans, there is nothing simple about the history of her family in America. She descends from Mayflower passengers, African slaves, indentured servants, and prominent figures in American history such as Anne Hutchinson, the Quaker martyr, Mary Dyer, and the McCoys of the famous feud.”
Because I share DNA with each person in the “Relations” photographs, these portraits are also modern-day self-portraits. “
“I wanted to make the anti-selfie,” she wrote. “The portrait that doesn’t deflect your gaze, the portrait that actually tries to care, that holds your gaze a little too long.
Finding subjects and shooting the portraits that constitute “Strangers and Relations,” currently on view at Tonkonow Artworks + Projects in New York City through June 29, proved to be a daunting experience. To photograph everyone she got in touch with, Nakadate traveled roughly 37,000 miles across America, spending months at a time meeting new strangers she was related to every night, sometimes shooting more than one a night. Nakadate chose the evening sky as a background and lit the newly found strangers with both flashlight and ambient light “because when we are lost in the dark, we use flashlights to find one another.”
Nakadate wrote that when she meets someone, she really wants to see them, and she is always curious to learn more about her subjects’ lives.
“I found it to be very complicated, emotionally and physically, to make this work,” she wrote. “It was impossible not to care about each person. … The act of looking at another human is very powerful.”
Nakadate spent a lot of time alone while traveling, sometimes finding herself in isolated and remote places where even her GPS wouldn’t work. Getting herself lost turned out to be part of the project.
“It’s as if I needed to completely lose hold of everyday life and set sail into the unknown in order to make this work. Perhaps the feeling of total vulnerability was also important.”
She added that the work, aesthetically, suggests a paradox of being alone while also being connected through DNA. Technically, the photographs are similar to long-exposure photography with short bursts of light used in early portrait photography.
“The American landscape and the night sky are intoxicating to me, endlessly mysterious and seductive,” she wrote. “Standing before a stranger at night, with only the stars and camera as witness, seems like an intimate and vulnerable act.”
“I shot hundreds of portraits of these strangers, these descendants of this American history. The thing I kept thinking as I made the work was: All of these people standing in these dark landscapes descend from an incredible history. Each one of them is the result of a million little chances, a million plot twists that allowed them to end up here, standing before the camera.”