These portraits depict members of the Kit-Cat Club, a political/literary dining club active in London during the early 1700s. Kneller, a member of the club himself, produced 48 portraits over a roughly 20-year period. Each portrait is 28” by 36” (shorter than half-length, but longer than a head-and-shoulders view, coining a new size called a “kit-cat”), and no two paintings repeat the exact same pose.
This seemed like a great photography challenge for us: could we replicate the look of Kneller’s portraits? And could we work with our models to find unique poses for each photograph? We decided to shift the time frame of the portraits forward to the late 1700s instead of the early 1700s, since many of our friends have 1770s-1790s costumes already.
To get these pictures, we set up a little studio in our basement. The space is not very big, so we had to push all of the furniture off to the sides in order to make room for a paper backdrop. (We chose brown paper to more closely resemble the warm-toned backgrounds in Kneller’s portraits.)
We took a few trips to our local antique mall to find some period-appropriate furniture, principally a chair and several little tables. We also collected a set of props, such as books and faux flowers, to help add variety to the poses.
We originally were only going to buy one table, which we found for about $20 on Amazon. However, we had a shipping snafu the day before one of our shoots (Amazon sent us, of all things, a box of diapers by accident instead of the table). Fearing the replacement table would not arrive in time for our shoot the next day, we ran back out to the antique mall to find a substitute, and lucked into two little tables for $35 total. And then, about an hour after we had returned home from the antique mall…the correct package with the original table showed up from Amazon. So now we have three tables!
For lighting, we mostly used a speedlight on a stand with a shoot-through umbrella to provide soft, diffuse light that would illuminate our models, but would not be too harsh or directional. We put the light high up and off to one side to generate soft shadows that would help show the contours of our models’ faces, but used a reflector on the opposite side to make sure everything was properly lit.
For this first wave, Mike did most of the shooting, while I helped to position lights, hold reflectors, adjust costumes and hair, and provide creative guidance. We worked with eight models (including me), over five separate shooting sessions.
A behind-the-scenes photo with Britney
Another behind-the-scenes photo with Ashley. (The softbox you see off to the side was not being used for this shot.)
I spent some time in Lightroom and Photoshop editing the images, but we found that shooting in a studio, where you have much more control over the light and environment, reduces the need for editing. One adjustment I did make was to add some “vignetting” (an effect that darkens the corners and edges of a picture), to heighten the resemblance to Kneller’s oil paintings.
Here are the final images!
These eight portraits are our “first wave,” but we already have plans to work with more costumers to release a second (and hopefully a third!) set later this year. We probably will not match Kneller’s total of 48 portraits, but, then again, he did take 20 years!
We have learned a lot in the last few months: about photography, lighting, posing, and editing, and about the original Kit-Cat Club, as well. It has been such fun trying new things, and working with all of our fantastic models has been a delight! A huge thanks to Carolyn, Maggie, Stephani, Britney, Taylor, Michael S., and Ashley without whom this project would never have been possible.