Eight Photographers’ Pictures From Isolation
Eight Photographers’ Pictures From Isolation
“Like a high-strung racehorse who needs extra weight in her saddle pad, I like a handicap and relish the aesthetic challenge posed by the limitations of the ordinary,” writes the photographer Sally Mann in her memoir, “Hold Still” (2015). In our stilled, stalled time, her words ring especially true. Here we all are, burdened by untold fears, forced to make do, to essentialize, to improvise. And also, within all of this, to open our eyes and attend to new possibilities.
Of course, attention is the linchpin of image-making, and so T asked a number of photographers, many of whom typically derive inspiration from the wider world, how they are approaching this newfound intimacy with the ordinary, and to share what they have invented within it. Some relayed mystical encounters with nature and the animal world: Domingo Milella discovered ancient symbols on the rugged outskirts of Bari, Italy; Richard Mosse communed with the craggy topography of the Burren landscape in Ireland; Asako Narahashi, in Japan, found solace alongside a rescued cat. On the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, Wayne Lawrence embraced proximity to family and the lush surroundings, while in wintry Minnesota, Alec Soth gave in to distance by chronicling his neighborhood through a pair of binoculars, capturing the feeling of being at once near and far, sheltered and susceptible.
Others have found ongoing projects imbued with fresh relevance. For his series “Chance and Necessity,” Hitoshi Fugo captured the drama and beauty of everyday mishaps in his Tokyo kitchen. On the beaches of Long Island, Renée Cox considered the multiplicity of the self in this moment of collective inwardness. So, too, did Joel Meyerowitz, who began a daily ritual of self-portraiture at the start of the year, and for whom the act of facing oneself honestly is a kind of celebration.
Indeed, the wide-ranging images here acknowledge but don’t limit themselves to melancholy; rather, they hold intrigue, affirmation and even delight, reminding us that, as Meyerowitz says, photography is a hopeful art form, an act of “saying yes,” of staying awake to the world — which, as the pandemic continues to push us into retreat, is as vital a task as ever.
Quotes have been edited and condensed.
Pictures taken in London
On New Year’s Day, I thought, “What could I do this year that would be a challenge?” I’d never really done self-portraits, so I decided to take one a day, every day, for a year. Most of the time, if you do a self-portrait, you take one or two or 10. And very often people try to make themselves look as attractive as can be. But I want to leave my ego at the door and see myself at the age that I am, looking the way that I look — I realize I’m not the dashing street photographer I once was. And I’m trying to add risky components so that the work remains chancey and even provocative. I want the picture to be somewhat out of control and clumsy or rude or careless.
The Leicas I use have a 12-second timer, so you can set up the frame and then live in it doing what you’re doing: chopping vegetables, dining with someone, polishing your shoes, who knows. It’s as if I have a live-in personal photographer doing a story on my life, but here the camera is capturing all the moments that someone else couldn’t, like when I’m in the shower, when I’m taking a bath with my wife. I find a lot of the pictures I make are of me looking. Because that’s what my life has been. In one photograph, I was lying on the floor doing my stretches, and I looked up and saw a plaster circle on the ceiling. And I thought, “Suppose the camera was where I am now, looking at me looking up at that circle.”
When I started the project, I could work in crowds. But now, my cast of characters is me, myself, and I … and my wife, Maggie. So that’s four of us. And the question is how to keep it interesting, especially in a small apartment. One of the pictures I made on the street while we were taking a walk. I passed someone’s house and a flower was on the little pedestal at the entranceway. I walked over and my shadow fell over it, and the flower was where my heart is.
I’m 82 years old, and I’m in that vulnerable group. Plus, I have a compromised respiratory system because after 9/11, I spent nine months taking pictures at ground zero. Many painters start painting the four seasons, or decaying fruit and flowers, in their later years. I’m looking at themes of life, aging and death here — this is what you look like now, this is what you’re stuck with — but trying to have fun within the limitations. I’m willing to be the fool, in a sense, in my own story line. Whatever comes to mind, I’ll try it. It’s actually very optimistic. I’ve always felt that photography is a positive art form. Every time I press a button on the camera, I’m saying yes to something I saw, something that woke me up. Even in the face of disasters and plagues, one has to look for the positive qualities that give us the energy to continue.
Pictures taken in Minneapolis, Minn.
I’m at home with two kids and my wife and many animals: two dogs, three cats, an iguana and a hamster. I couldn’t pick up a real camera to take pictures, because that felt too much like being a real photographer. I didn’t want to give it that sense of authority. I was just kind of overwhelmed, and I’m not a photographer who runs toward crisis. But I had this memory of using binoculars on a safari a few years ago. I found that looking through them renders space really beautifully — it makes faraway things close but in a peculiar way. On a whim, I put my iPhone up to the binoculars and started taking pictures. It’s clumsy and really hard to do — the power of binoculars is not as strong as most telephoto lenses on a camera — but I kind of enjoyed the game of it.
So I pulled out those same binoculars and drove around in the bubble of my minivan looking for signs of life. Nowadays, it feels like everything is seen through panes of glass. Binoculars have multiple layers of glass, and I shot these pictures through the added layer on the iPhone, as well as through the car windows. So, distance, distance, distance.
The picture of the house with the arched window has this lens aberration. I like how the bubble’s colors are similar to those of the fabric hanging in the window. It’s one of those beautiful accidents. The very stalker-ish photo of the guy in the window was hard to do technically, because of the binoculars and the low light and the need for the guy to stay still.
My photography has always been about social distance, in a way. Social awkwardness, social distance, all of those things. I’ve always thought about this in terms of the lens, that this piece of glass is separating me and protecting me in some ways from the world. The thing I’m trying to process now relates to the larger ethical meaning of being a photographer. I’m always conflicted about using people as fodder for my artistic pursuits. And this idea of traveling great distances, driving all over, using gas, flying places, and spreading things — is that really the best way to be in the world? That’s partly why I admire photographers who make work at home and teach us how to be observant of our own lives. What will it mean for me to be an ethical photographer in whatever new world comes out of this?
Pictures taken in and around Amagansett, N.Y.
My house on Long Island is in the woods, and I’m seeing vitality: giant wild turkeys in abundance, deer in herds who just don’t care. Nature takes back very quickly.
With these photos, I was following a self-portraiture assignment I gave to my students. I think this is a time when you can really explore yourself, because you’re not going to be setting up shoots; you’re not going to be working with other people. And that’s what I’ve been doing. Being an artist has been my solace; it provides me with a certain degree of therapy. I’m in my house with my family, but I can still get in my car and drive to the lighthouse, take photographs on the beach. I might see one other person.
“Self-Portrait Rocks” was me in Montauk alone. It’s a composite, a meditation. I was feeling almost buried, asking myself, “OK, what’s next? How long are we here?” “Me, Myself & I” was initially shot in the city, and then I manipulated it after coming out here. In my studio, I’ve placed two mirrors at a 70-degree angle — an old photo carnival trick. The image is a séance of sorts that draws on spirit photography from the late 1800s. I was thinking about the idea of solitude but also the question: Are we ever really alone? I hear people saying, “I’m bored, I’m bored,” and I think, “It’s because you’re bored with yourself.” You’ve got to learn to love yourself, to have a conversation with yourself.
“Covid-19 Neon Self-Portrait” is another composite. Once you start going down this path of looking within, then hopefully some light gets shed. I’m trying to be grounded in the present moment. As we get further into the pandemic, that becomes a part of the message: Deal with this now, as opposed to thinking about when it’s going to be over, or when you can get back to what you were doing before. For all the control freaks of the world, it must be pure hell, but I think the lesson to be learned is: Wait a second, maybe give up that control. And what kind of control are you seeking anyway?
Pictures taken in Bari, Italy
This crisis feels like an archetypal call from the forest, the animals, the place we inhabit. It is a very deeply ecological crisis, and I don’t think we can separate the virus from what we’ve been doing in the industrial age. If we keep talking about stock markets, I think we will have failed to understand. The words “economic,” “ecological” and “ecosystemic” all lead back to the Greek word oikonomos, and the idea of home, the rules of the house. Perhaps, while confined, we can rethink how the earth is also our home. And it’s not a private home but a collective one.
The virus, too, is that rare thing that puts us all in front of a similar event. I think this is very powerful; there is something religious about it, even. There are days I’m desperate and want to cry, and others when I see the possibilities for harmony and for beauty and art. I usually work with my big black box camera and camera obscura and do not share images taken on my phone, as these were. But the moment of crisis made me feel as though I had permission to focus on quotidian elements. I’ve been in this suburban tower, which was built by my uncle and is where I grew up, for 40 days already. My whole family is here, on different levels — I’m on the 13th floor, my parents are on the 12th, my cousin is on the 11th. Down below is a Pasolini-looking countryside, with views of project housing, the Adriatic Sea, villas from the 1700s, bunkers from World War II, olive trees, a railway and some junk from previous buildings.
The pictures I made are about being confined but also about being resourceful in the way of a child, about looking at things with purity and listening to the wind. Now, we have to re-challenge our imagination. I took some pictures of a fig tree and some leaves. One day, on my way to the tree, I met a very big black snake. It so happens that the night before, I had taken out a skin of a different snake that I had in a little box in my apartment. I put the skin next to a little puff of white feather that had fallen off one of the peregrine falcons flying by. I told my friend about all of this, and they sent me a picture from the Middle Ages of Adam, Eve and a fig tree with a big snake wrapped around it. Sometimes, when you stop and take time to meet a snake or follow the flight of a falcon, something magical starts to happen.
Pictures taken in Tokyo
This series, “Chance and Necessity,” came out of two incidents I had in the kitchen of my home in Tokyo about a year ago. I attempted to toast leftover dumpling dough wrappers to transform them into croutons for salad. However, I kept them in my toaster too long and ended up burning them thoroughly. Then, I caught my breath at the radiant, black charred wrappers. Another time, I dropped a bunch of very thin dry somen noodles, and they scattered on the kitchen floor. They created a stunning, unexpected image of overlapping straight lines. These moments led me to start a new photographic series, which includes these pictures I made in the last couple of weeks, during the quarantine.
This theme of chance and necessity is something I have long been interested in, but the timeliness now is miraculous. It’s about using what you have. What I’m creating is a consequence of the collaboration between chance and the photographer. The artwork is not the black charred wrappers or scattered noodles themselves; it is the photographic images that emerge.
Now, we are experiencing fear of something not visible. We last had that during the Fukushima nuclear disaster nine years ago. We didn’t know what it would be like the next day, or the next week, and we were also scared by something we could not see. People tend to think that photographers take pictures of things that you can see, but I’m now realizing that it might be more important to express the opposite, what is not seeable.
Pictures taken in Tokyo
Faced with such a nightmarish world, every morning I wake up and I feel shocked that it isn’t a dream. At the same time, I feel angry about the Japanese government’s slow and almost cunning response to the situation, as well as about the insufficient information. I don’t want to die under the current administration. So, I’m trying to stay alive and live my daily life attentively and respectfully.
My outdoor shooting activities have been suspended. But the self-quarantine situation has given me an opportunity to look at things that I hadn’t shot much in the past, apart from the context of my usual work. I don’t think everything will ever go back to the way it was, so I think my work will also change naturally.
I got this cat from a shelter for rescues last summer, and I’m keeping him indoors. I’ve been shooting him since I took him in — the pictures here are part of the series “Yabusaka” (2020), Yabusaka being the cat’s name. He has nowhere to go but our cramped living room and the sunroom next to it. I still can’t touch him because he seems to have been severely abused during his time as a stray. The social distance between us is too far.
However, over the last two months, I feel we are gradually sharing the same space and time more than ever before. Looking at him, I’m able to forget about everything, if only for a short while. Thanks to this cat, I feel like I’m being saved.
Pictures taken in the Burren National Park, Ireland
I have always thought that wandering through the hills and the fractured limestone strata of the Burren landscape feels something like mapping the striations of one’s own mind. This is a land of texture, and it often takes some concentration on the ground in front of you not to trip up or fall into any of the “clints” or “grikes,” the furrowed delineations created by millions of years of rain erosion. One must remain focused on each step and absorbed in the present moment. This helps distill the mind. As a photographer and as a walker, I see this landscape inwardly, as an expression of layers of thought that become especially evident after prolonged periods of isolation. I tried to capture that in this mini-series, as it has been important to me. Isolation, I’ve found, can be centering.
One of the photos shows a rag tree, which is an ancient practice in Ireland that descends from pagan times. It is a kind of shamanic site where people come to be healed. Those with illness and ailments will make a pilgrimage to the site, bringing some old rag or memento that represents their sickness and tie it to the rag tree. Doing so is said to heal the malady, if not physically then in some spiritual way. When Christianity arrived in Ireland in the Dark Ages, the church appropriated this practice, and so these sites have survived and are still popular. The spring bubbling from the rocks beneath this tree is considered a source of holy water — it’s known locally as a holy well — and there are some glass mugs hanging from nails for believers to use to drink from the purifying stream. I have visited this rag tree for many years but have never seen it so heavily strewn with rags and other tokens.
I think this moment may be the death of analog photography. And of course, the art world was always very interpersonal, relational. It was about showing up to talks, openings, visiting museums, experiencing the work in person. All that seems like a memory now, replaced by the digital. This truly has locked us, at least for now, into viewing photography on social media and online. It will take a lot to return to the emphasis there was, until recently, on showing up in person, on giving the work the space to breathe. One could argue that this has the potential to democratize photography, but remember that each time you upload an image to social media, you’re giving away the rights to a massive corporation. It’s incredibly important for us, as humans, to show up and be present in order to create society. That’s dangerous to do now, and also currently illegal for many people, so I feel nervous about what we stand to lose, particularly in regard to human rights and liberal democracy.
Pictures taken in St. Kitts, St. Kitts and Nevis
I’m in St. Kitts, where I’m from, in a studio on my father’s property. This was my first time spending the winter in St. Kitts since I left 26 years ago. It’s always been a goal of mine; I’ve never gotten used to the cold in Brooklyn, so thankfully the timing worked out in that sense.
I don’t feel any pressure to go out and make pictures. I’m fairly content waiting for this to pass. My day is pretty much this: I wake up at about 4 o’clock in the morning, stretch and meditate for a couple hours, eat, exercise, shower, rest for a couple hours, do some reading, check in with my social media, cook … I’ve enjoyed being in the kitchen. It’s a forced hiatus.
The beauty of living on the islands is we have a yard, so we can be outside enjoying nature. And it’s a blessing to be here with half of my family. The pictures I sent are of my siblings, a niece, my dad in his studio working on a sculpture and my stepmother’s birds. My stepmother raises birds and those are lovebirds. They’re caged and not practicing social distancing.
Whatever happens after this, we have to adapt. We have to keep living, and we have to keep creating. Now, I’m just living day by day, thankful for every day I can wake up and smell some fresh air and pick some fresh fruit off my tree. I’ve always been an introvert, so this type of living is not new to me. I just stepped onto my balcony, and the breeze outside is amazing. It’s the first time we’ve had this kind of breeze in about two weeks, and it’s just what I needed.