31 Dec 2021

the pandemic, a photographic history

I've been fascinated by the creative output the pandemic has produced, in particular - and unsurprisingly - through photography zines, books and exhibitions. I've referenced examples already but wanted to draw some themes from the ones I've picked up along the way.

It's also an opportunity to reflect on my own response, of course. We're at a significant point now in England. The national unity of the first wave of the pandemic feels a long time ago. We're approaching a new year better protected but with less confidence of getting back to normal than last December. There's a creeping realisation that how we collectively learn to live with the pandemic comes next.

The images and texts in these zines and books are already historic. However for me it's as much about the motivation behind creating them as the actual content itself. They represent ways of using the act of making images and of distributing them to help deal with the situations thrust upon people, in a highly engaged way. Perhaps it's the act of turning documentary practices onto individuals and communities more cross-sectional than stereotyped. The consequences are not only a record of our times but place image making, of and by ourselves, at the centre of that record.

The early days of lockdown initiated a number of "doorstep" projects and one I really like is Levy Lockdown Portraits by Ciara Leeming that she's now developed into a full participatory project with her local community sharing experiences through stories and diairies as well as photography.

Levy Lockdown Portraits zine cover

Using photographs to stimulate personal narratives is also a feature of Birmingham Lockdown Stories by Jaskirt Boora. Here we move from the doorstep into locations of peoples' choice, which is a wonderful way of creating trust and representations of worth.

Birmingham Lockdown Stories zine cover

Another zine with the mission to "move beyond the doorstep" was published this year. Still Life by WorkHorse Collective presents some innovative interprations of lockdown life with a mission to give a platform to people otherwise underpresented.

Werkhaus Still Lives zine cover

Taking control of representation is also a feature of My Camera My Therapy by Natalie Ball. Giving equal weight to the testimonials of photographers opposite their images in the zine is symbolic of their relationship with photography and the role it plays in their lives in lockdown.

My Camera My Therapy zine coverr

Paul Treacy produced another of his wonderful handmade books and it was great to see it picked up by the BBC. Pandemic Constitutional is a soulmate of Natalie Ball's work as a portrait of someone coming to terms with life with COVID. I can certainly relate to the structure of the work, found pictures taken on walks around a local neighbourhood, but Paul's phrase 'sustaining creativity' is particularly striking.

Pandemic Constitutional book cover

Two other personal collections of local life in the early months of the pandemic are Village Lockdown by Robert Law and Lockdown Fakenham by Keith Osborn. It's fascinating to cross-reference the images that could be interchangeable in places.
Village Lockdown zine cover

Lockdown Fakenham zine cover

At this point I have to mention two collections of London lockdown photography. The LIP Chronicles from the London Independent Photography group I'm a member of. Produced on newsprint, images from group members are arranged across a weekly timeline from the announcement of the what became the first lockdown in England, reflecting a range of creative responses. Even looking back at it now sparks memories.

LIP Chronicles cover

I must say the London in Lockdown collection, published by Hoxton Mini Press and introduced by Jilke Goldbach presents a tremendous range of work. Chris Dorley-Brown's early morning cityscapes I was familiar with and Jemima Yong's Field too. However for me the variety of images in Spencer Murphy's Our Bullet Lives Blossom As They Race Towards The Wall conveys the strangeness of those days perfectly.

London in Lockdown book cover

Continuing the theme of compilation, perhaps what will become the official record of events Hold Still published by the National Portrait Gallery is a survey of the nation taken from an open submission of portraits by people across the country. Raising money for Mind, it also generated a digital and an outdoor exhibition of the work across the country at the end of 2020. Looking at it now a year on it perhaps best captures what was characterised as the blitz spirit of that period.

Hold Still book cover

A 180 degree view of that are posed by three very personal works. A project I greatly admire and wrote about last year is good to reference here too. Amuleto by Francheska Melendez and Ben Roberts is a powerful synthesis of the pandemic in Spain and the Black Lives Matter movement. Eighteen months year on, the value of documenting that summer is so valuable as memories fade.
Amuleto book cover
Europe is also the setting of John Perivolaris's Pandemicon 2020-2021, an odyssey from Scotland to Italy and Greece, made all the more poignant by its dedication to the death of his mother from COVID.

Pandemicon 2020-2021 book cover

I've been intrigued by the idea of a box of prints and as an alternative to zines and books it was so good to see that approcah taken by Tristan Poyer and his work Masked: A Portrait of Amazon. His rationale is best read directly. I couldn't do it justice by paraphrasing it. For me it's the best testimony of this period I've seen.

Masked: A Portrait of Amazon cover

For completeness I'm going to add two of the first publications I found at the start of the pandemic and mentioned last year, Insiders and Limbo. Now in retrospect it's fascinating to see the work produced so early in the pandemic and that initial period of extreme isolation when many creative people found ways of expressing and supporting eachother.

Insiders zine cover

Limbo zine cover

I'd also like to mention a non-photographic work for the stimulation of its writing. When This Is All Over by The London Society is a range of essays about the possibilities and opportunities of post-pandemic life in London. It actually does have a some fine images and illustrations so I think I can sneak it in to this selection ;)

When This Is All Over cover

And finally - for now - I'd like to include a work that's just been crowdfunded so I don't have it just yet but with the title Photography through the Pandemic it's hard to resist.

When This Is All Over cover

I do sometimes feel I should just "move on" from the fixation with the creative consequences of the pandemic. When I see work like this it gives me faith to stay the course. 

A little longer.

 

29 Nov 2021

long lockdown

Reflecting on a second year of COVID it would be strange not to include the five storeys high exhibition. However the real highlights for me have been the impact on local community groups. This outreach work was part of our pitch for fundraising and for me in particular became a way to reconcile my initial unease with the project. Spending time with a group from Southall staring up at the front of Ealing police station felt like a way of squaring the circle.

The resulting workshop back in their space produced some poignant reflections on the impact of the pandemic on their lives. I brought A4 versions of the photographs from the show to pick from and A4 paper so they could draw and write their responses. It was a privilege to hear the emotions and memories evoked by the photographs. Afterwards, sharing their creativity with the photographers whose work was selected alongside the accompanying pieces, gave us all a moment to reflect for ourselves.

It also gave me momentum to develop a pop-up version of the exhibition to create a space in a community centre in another part of Ealing to share their experiences of the pandemic.  

 Ealing Unlocked Popup

I spent time with people in a couple of drop-in sessions just listening and then talking about the idea of the show and encouraging them to bring their own photographs from the last eighteen months. The result was a unique display of photographs made by the Gurnell Grove community during the pansemic on screen, presented alongside a mini version of Ealing Unlocked on foam board, ranged around the community centre. 

Collaborating in this way, to recognise the value and give a platform for people's images, was another fascinating way to leverage the original project to create something new and significant.

Can't wait to see what we can do next.



10 Oct 2021

the other side of lockdown

I'm writing this having just published my third book of photographs from the streets of Ealing over the last eighteen months. I'm anticipating - hoping? - it will be the last, having reached the end of the official restrictions, in England at least, back in July. However I think there's little belief that this is the end of the impact on the mental and physical health of a large part of the population and will be felt by generations to come.

 

My motivation for documenting the symbols of these times as they unfolded was to find a way for me to comprehend the changes in our ways of living, working, even being. In a world where so much influence is attributed to social media, I've been struck by the intimacy of handwritten notes and signs. Shops have become time machines, fast-forwarding us into the future. Hairdressers going out of business, re-opening as COVID testing centres. Want to buy some shoes? How about an electric bike instead? Simultaneously we've been pulled back in time. Posters for cinema and theatre openings replaced by public information instructions. Take a Jab for Britain. Countered by Cold War cartoons on lamp posts, representing the resistance. The mask has become a touchpaper of division we'll live with for a long time.

IMG_20210221_082534

It's been positive to turn these sideways observations into something of tangible benefit for people directly impacted by the pandemic, through making a contribution to Ealing Foodbank from the book sales. It's now set me on a path of working with other members of Ealing LIP to find ways to use photography to enable local community groups to express their own feelings about their experiences..

I've also been taken by my pivot from a lifetime of pursuing a passion for black and white photography on film of people on the streets of London's West End and other cities around the world, to a daily routine of using my mobile phone to record what I literally stumbled across on my morning runs around my local neighbourhood. So where does that leave me now, when I have the freedom to return to those streets? It's important to recognise the ideas and movements that have come to the fore in these febrile times. Rights of representation and the power of privilege are now impossible to ignore in everyday life and certainly in the practice of street photography. It's made me re-think carefully about my own ways of working.

On that note the range and brilliance of creative response to these time has been inspirational. I confess to having found it hard to resist buying books and zines, often for good causes, as well as attending fascinating virtual exhibitions and talks about peoples' ways of dealing with lockdown and loss. I'm proud to have been part of Ealing LIP's own contribution through the Ealing Unlocked exhibition. Platforms have been taken by marginalised voices and opportunities seized to innovate and share ideas with new audiences. I hope to see that the channels of production - as well as the work - will not be forgotten too.

 IMG_20210307_082656

The pandemic has been a portent of the pace and impact of disruption that will become more common as we face the realities of social and climate disruption. Photography's response will inevitably draw upon its history of documenting, but I feel its tradition of activism will become more vital and those shifts in the balances of power can be amongst the positive changes we can take through the other side of lockdown.


 

4 Sept 2021

five storeys high

This year's group show of my local photography group is literally a step up from my last one. Taking over the front of a five storey police station sounds a pretty subversive exercise but this is being done with their cooperation and the support of a great crowdfunding campaign.

I confess to ambivalent feelings about the project. Initially I was intrigued if this would ever get off the ground (OK, the puns stop here) so getting involved in the fundraising has been a real education. It's understandably seen as a community relations exercise so for me the project has become an opportunity to engage local community groups in their experiences of lockdown and unlock (last one) some of their thoughts using the photographs as a starting point. Photography has become for me more and more a means to an end, the images themselves just one point in the process.

I'm really looking forward to working with people on these and continuing to try and make some sense of our times using photographs. No pressure then.