Did anyone ever tell you that you look like your mother? Your brother? An aunt or your child?
The subjects of Eric Mueller’s photographs have likely heard that before. It’s usually what leads them to his St. Paul studio, where he takes photos that reveal the uncannily overlapping physical traits of biological kin.
Since the launch of “The Family Resemblance Project” in 2016, Mueller has photographed 700 people from 200 families, posing side by side, wearing white shirts and stoic smiles. The similarities in their eyes or their chins, their hair or their stances leap from white backgrounds, putting a spotlight on the behind-the-scenes work of DNA.
Growing up adopted, Mueller had longed to know how it felt to look like one’s relatives. He found out at age 45 when he saw a photo of his biological mother and grandparents for the first time. That moment, and the deep ache he’d long had to understand just how genes and appearance are intertwined, became the impetus for the photo series.
Now, the project is out in book form. “Family Resemblance” includes many of Mueller’s favorite photo shoots from the past few years. Four sisters, each in a different stage of pregnancy, line up in a row for a side view of the gestation process. A mother and daughter embrace, and it’s hard to tell — for just a moment — which one is which.
While these photos portray something as universal as genetics, the book is deeply Minnesotan. Mueller’s models came to him by word of mouth, usually from someone who sat for him and then posted the resulting photo on social media. That’s how he wound up photographing several members of the same church.
It makes sense that as people saw their friends’ family photos, they would want their own. For all their simplicity, the photos have a magnetism, the faces begging to be studied like a child’s “Spot the Difference” game. The Star Tribune spoke to Mueller about what the project taught him, why it matters to people, and what it means in the era of COVID-19.
Q: What did you learn from photographing more than 700 people?
A: The project started as this personal thing. I’m adopted, and I wondered what it was like to resemble other people. I started from this place of wondering about myself, but after these three years of shooting people and talking with them, I realized that the subject was not about me personally but was very universal.
I had many different types of families come in. There are people who are all biologically related and have what we think of as a traditional nuclear family. But we also had a lot of people who, like myself, were adopted, and they had biological kids. They were so excited to bring the kids in and then see a photo of themselves next to somebody who looked like them. They understood this question I was trying to answer.
And people who emigrated from Laos in the 1970s, some of the first to come to Minnesota — for them, resemblance was this thing that united them on multiple levels. As a family, but also they just didn’t look like anybody else around here. It gave them a sense of belonging.
Q: What were some favorite photo shoots?
A: Definitely one favorite family was the four sisters that came in, three of whom were pregnant. One is not pregnant, one is 15 weeks, one is 28 weeks and one is 34 weeks pregnant. When they’re all lined up, instead of the “Ages of Man,” it’s the stages of pregnancy.
Another real favorite of mine: I had a number of people ask me if I would shoot on Mother’s Day. They ended up being very special shoots. The people who came in to be photographed were in the mind-set of honoring and celebrating their mothers. They would talk about their relationship with their mother. They would start crying, I would start crying.
Then I would have people come in who would just look like dead ringers. They’d say, “People tell us all the time we look alike, but we don’t see it at all.” Are you kidding me?
Q: How did seeing your mother’s photo for the first time inspire you to do this project?
A: It was such a big moment for me. If you’re not adopted, I don’t know that you can understand what that’s like. It closed a loop I didn’t even realize was open. I got to have this experience for the first time of resembling somebody else. I don’t know how, but it led to this idea of wanting to document it in other people and celebrate that in other people.
Q: What do you want people to take away from your book?
A: When all of this pandemic started happening, I asked the publisher, “Do you want to postpone the book?” They said, “No, Eric, this is the exact kind of thing that people need right now.” We’re spending so much time with our families, sequestered at home. That’s what this book is about. This is about all different types of families and appreciating them.
I had no way of knowing COVID-19 was coming and we would be forced to be with our families much more than we are used to, and for many, than we would like. But I hope people look at the book and have a deeper appreciation for those people around them.
Q: Why are people so fascinated by studying faces?
A: I think we’re all pattern-seekers. We so want to see faces in things. We want to see ourselves in other people, and I think it’s because we all want a human connection, whether we admit it or not. And when you can actually see the human connection, I think it makes you happy. I think it gives you peace. Because it’s a visual reminder that we are indeed connected to other people, inextricably.