Before lockdown I was commissioned by Edinburgh University medical school to reinterpret Rembrant’s painting, ‘The anatomy lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’. The university owns a copy painting of this that hangs by their anatomy museum just where we made this photograph. In our version the characters were replaced by all female medical students who represent the very first women students in Britain that were allowed to study medicine 150 years ago at Edinburgh University. Sad to say the women back then were not granted the honour of graduating, something the university rectified at a honorary degree ceremony for them last year.
It was a real honour to be involved with a project to help redress this imbalance, something that we need to be ever mindful of when we still live in a world where women’s rights are still being decided by groups of men.
There was a tricky balance to strike to shoot this. I’d have ideally spent several hours on it fine tuning lighting, angles and outfits. But of course we couldn’t take up the space and time of everyone involved indefinitely so the image was pretty much one hour from start to finish. We set it up just outside the anatomy museum next to a giant elephant skeleton which is just out of shot. The robes and props we had were a far cry from perfect but I love the challenge of making the best of what you’ve got. I guess the trickiest part was the fact that the arm was 6 inches short and should have been a left hand, not a right! As well as that I discovered just how many liberties Rembrandt had taken to foreshorten the cadaver and raising the figures at the back, something we had to work around. Several people have since commented on the cadaver looking like Mark Zukerberg and much as I’d like to say it was all an intentional symbol it’s wasn’t!
I prefer not to do unnecessary retouching and there’s not much my final version other than colour, texture and grading. I wanted it to look like the Rembrandt but I didn’t want it to be overly stylised, otherwise the key message of the image could get obscured.
There’s an article here in The Scotsman that covers more on the original Edinburgh Seven.
I’ve photographed at this same location many times for the university in the past but also on a personal project.
This image was also inspired by the Rembrandt painting so it’s pretty ironic I was asked to do this again byJen Middleton from the university when she was unaware of my earlier Conemen version. That first shoot was memorable for having the affable Prof. Gordon Findlater who was at the time head of department show us round. He stayed late so we could shoot and gave us a personal tour of the spooky anatomy museum upstairs which included the skeleton and life mask of body snatcher William Burke, from ‘Burke and Hare’ infamy. It’s generally closed to the public.
I love to work on projects like this but it’s not too often they come up. If anyone out there is inspired and would like me to shoot a project for them, whether it be for a client or just personally I’d love to be kept in mind. When projects are interesting enough the budget is of secondary concern for me.
If you want to see more new work like this then my Instagram feed is the place to see it.