Becoming Hemingway by Henry Hargreaves

Impersonators pose as "Papa" in the curious Kiwi's latest photo project

Back in 1957, photographer Yousef Karsh asked an aging Earnest Hemingway to sit for a portrait. In what would become an iconic image, the author stares to the right of the camera, white-bearded and gruff. More than any other image, the portrait is the one most in tune with the romantic image of Hemingway as a stern, imposing genius—not to mention, it made famous the cable-knit sweater. As the story behind the Karsh portrait goes, Hemingway had returned from Africa, suffering as the result of a violent plane crash. Karsh remembers the author as “a man of peculiar gentleness,” and it’s arguably this combination of raw masculinity and kindness that makes the photo so riveting.


Fast-forward to present day, and the fanfare surrounding Hemingway is as fervent as ever. A yearly gathering in Key West on 21 July (Hemingway’s birthday) even plays host to a look-alike contest at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, an old Hemingway haunt. Around 150 men gather for four days of competition—fishing, arm-wrestling, drinking and a toned-down running of the bulls—until a winner is crowned. This year’s prize went to Stephen Terry, in what was his seventh appearance in the contest.

Photographer Henry Hargreaves tells the story of Charlie Chaplin once hosting a lookalike contest of himself. In the end, Chaplin came in third. Fascinated by this anecdote, as well as the bizarre methods of hero worship in the US, the New Zealand photographer journeyed to the Florida Keys for the annual Hemingway event. He wanted to reproduce Karsh’s portrait. Hargreaves told impersonators the story behind the image and had them imitate Hemingway as best they could. The results are both moving and eerily uncanny. Contestants stare intensely, trying to find “Papa’s” marriage of gentleness and coarseness. Arranged together, they look like an entire generation of men made in the image of their hero.

See more of Henry Hargreaves’ work in our coverage of his book on 3D breasts, Jell-O Presidents and deep-fried gadgets. For the complete series, as well as other projects, visit Hargreaves’ website.

Images courtesy of Henry Hargreaves