The first time Eric Mueller saw his mother, he cried.
It was 2009, and he had just tracked down his only living birth family member, a cousin. The cousin gave Mueller a box of photos of his birth mother, who had died.
Mueller has always been fascinated by people who looked like their family members. He resembled his adopted siblings in mannerisms and food choices, and he and his adoptive father shared an interest in photography and a propensity for chunky black glasses.
But he didn’t look like anyone else he knew, and it bothered him.
“When you see people who look alike, you feel a pang of loss, because they have something you don’t,” said Mueller, 52, of Minneapolis. “It’s something I always wanted to have.”
On seeing the photo of his biological mother, he finally found it: “I looked so much like her,” he said.
Now, Mueller highlights the features other people share with their own kin.
A professional photographer, he last summer launched a self-funded project, called Family Resemblance, that groups together relatives and explores their similarities in a single frame.
In less than a year, Mueller has photographed some 65 groups of Minnesotans — mostly mothers and daughters or pairs of sisters. They meet him for short studio sessions in which, wearing matching white tops and bluejeans, they sit side by side and let the camera focus on the similar ways their hair falls down their backs, or their left eyes squint, or their chins are just a little crooked.
Mueller started out shooting just his friends, but soon word got around, and now people come to him, asking to take part.
“There’s something about tapping into the idea of family and resemblance and looking like other people — it seems to put people at ease,” he said.
He places subjects on stools that are adjusted so their torsos are at the same height, then instructs them through a few poses. Most are unsmiling; he tells them to imagine old-timey photographs where people had to stare at the camera for a long time without moving a facial muscle.
He directs them to turn at an angle, look toward a corner or spin around. Unfailingly, when he instructs them to turn face to face with each other, they start to laugh.
Kelly McCann, 28, and her sister Beth, 25, both of Minneapolis, did just that.
Some might say that Kelly, with short blue hair, and Beth, with long brown hair and a very pregnant belly, look nothing alike. They certainly don’t think they do.
“We just don’t see it,” Beth said.
But people tell them all the time how alike they are. The sisters chalk it up to mannerisms, voice, even political leanings.
“You can resemble each other in so many different ways,” Kelly said.
And yet, side by side in front of a white backdrop, it’s clear that their lips and noses — even the intensity of their stares — come from some shared DNA.
Or is that really it?
“We’re all wired to want to see patterns,” said Mueller, who was often told that he looked like his adoptive father by people who didn’t know his family history.
“People would say, ‘You look just like your dad.’ People want to see resemblances.”
He did, too.
Nature vs. nurture
When he learned about his biological family, he found all sorts of similarities between himself and his biological grandfather. They both played cards. They both paid close attention to detail. They were both hotheaded.
It led him to begin to question “how much is nature, and how much is nurture?”
Back then, Mueller was a hobby photographer who had diverted his dreams of being an artist for a career in film postproduction. But a couple of years later, when Instagram first rose out of an increasingly social web, Mueller became one of the first Minnesotans to take to the platform. He used it religiously, and formed a community with fellow iPhone photographers.
Entirely self-taught, Mueller developed an expertise in shooting artful photos on an iPhone. He now teaches courses on that topic around the metro area. With a following that’s swelled to 50,000 on Instagram, he quit his day job in 2014 and became a full-time photographer.
When he still found himself mulling over the power of genes, he decided to launch this project, which is free to participants. Mueller doesn’t have an endpoint — he says he could photograph family groups for the rest of his life. But he does hope to eventually put together an exhibition and a book.
For now, he has a stream of siblings and parents and children meet him on weekends at a studio he rents in St. Paul.
Jill Lee and her daughter Madeline, of Burnsville, were among these subjects recently. They heard about the project through a cousin’s friend, and had to take part because, said Madeline, “everyone tells me I look like my mom.”
With silky brown manes and lanky frames, mother and daughter look as if they’re cards in a lifelong matching game. It’s charming, but also a little “weird,” they said.
Jill paused. “We’re supposed to be individuals,” she said, and then her voice trailed off.