Photography During the Pandemic Part 3
By Michael Ernest Sweet
In this, the final installment of this three-part series on photography during the pandemic, I want to discuss one last thing – making photographs! Let’s not forget this is still possible, albeit with a dose of common sense and a few precautions.
Yes, you read correctly, you can still make photographs while at home. True, if you are a street photographer you may not be able to go about business as usual, at least right at this moment. But all of this doesn’t have to lead to a total shutdown, either. This is an opportune time to try something new, to work within the confines of our current reality. And opportunities abound. For example, if you normally make portraits of people, try shooting your cat or dog. Pet portraits are a whole new bag. Sure, you may never take up pet photography again, or even keep the resulting photographs, but you will learn some new skills and almost certainly have some fun. What do you have to lose? Worst case, your cat will ignore you for a week afterward. You could also turn your lens toward a significant other, if you happen to be quarantined with a partner, and see what that produces. As someone who almost always shoots strangers, it is always a learning opportunity when I attempt to photograph my family. I realize I am speaking to street photographers here, mostly, but I am a real believer in the idea that no matter what your genre, you will be a better photographer for having dipped your toes into all genres.
Still life photography has been out of fashion for some time now, decades, really. I predict this will not remain the case. Not only do all things come full circle, even bellbottoms, but our current stay-at-home situations are likely to cause an uptick in both still life production and interest. You can do a lot with a little fabric, a piece of wood, and a lightbulb, for example. Or, a paper bag and a simple flash. The options are as limitless as the human imagination. And, don’t forget nature! If you are lucky enough to have access to a garden these days, there is sure to be some photographs hiding in the weeds. This would be an opportune time to experiment with macro photography, if that’s a new area for you, and see, well more closely. For years, when I was judging photography contests, my most frequent comment was either get closer or back up. If you’re that lady that was shooting the sweeping vistas of the Canadian Prairie and now find yourself at home and unable to travel, try shooting the sweeping vistas of a flower petal. You’ll be surprised at home your skills translate.
The central point I want to make in this article is this: A lot of very fine and very high-art photography has been made from home. The one example that continually comes to mind for me these days is From My Window (1981) by Andre Kertesz. There is no easy way to fully explain this body of work in words; I highly recommend you get the book, which was re-released in 2007 by W.W. Norton as Andre Kertesz: The Polaroids. Although it is not an exact re-release, actually, it does include the same body of work – color Polaroids taken with an SX-70 camera. The work in this collection is stunning. Using simple objects, a simple camera, and masterful composition, Kertesz produced a collection of Polaroids that are, perhaps, the most sought after Polaroids in the world of fine art. Although Kertesz was under a sort of self-imposed quarantine, he was at the end of his life and was suffering depression after losing his wife, he produced the body of work from the twelfth-floor window of his New York City apartment. He later credited the work with pulling him out of depression.
Although Kertesz was already a master photographer nearing the end of his life when he embarked on this project, the physical limitation of being confined to his apartment is certainly a significant factor in a confluence of things that gave birth to this fine photography. An already trained and patient eye was forced to become even more patient during this project. From waiting for the exact right moment of light to fixing the little trinket in just the right way against the window’s backdrop, Kertesz made the best of his confines, yes, but also needed such limitations also – they were integral to the result. To be clear, Kertesz used natural light, one window with a static backdrop and a few household trinkets to make the truly stunning work in the collection.
Copyright ⓒ Sally Davies
More recently, we have seen many photographers take to the idea of photographing from their windows. Joel Meyerowitz did so, post 9/11, from his Manhattan studio window. Lee Friedlander has famously done so from his car window (leaving a pane of glass between himself and the outside world). You can see this fantastic work in Lee Friedlander: America by Car (2010). Finally, Canadian ex-pat, Sally Davies, has also made a name for herself shooting from her New York City apartment window. Many of Sally’s iconic images are views out of her living room window, often captured with an iPhone, which should be inspiration enough for anyone to give this a go.
Yes, we are stuck at home. Yes, this will go on for a while in one way or another. But yes also to the fact that we will return to our lives outside. We will prevail. And, in the meantime, yes to continuing to make photographs and enjoying our hobby.