Foreword: This piece is about my particular experience as a photographer practicing strict social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. I count myself as fortunate for not having been affected directly or indirectly by this disease. I empathize with those afflicted, and with those who have lost loved ones. I would also like to express my deep and profound respect for frontline workers battling the pandemic. For essential workers who have made it possible for families like mine to safely shelter-in-place, I see you, and I will not forget how essential you are when this is over.
Doing your part to halt the spread of a global pandemic demands personal sacrifice. In Canada, restrictions have meant being more or less housebound, relying on deliveries, and canceling all non-essential travel. Essentially it’s been like a three month long blizzard, which is just another name for “winter” in the Blue Mountains of Ontario. We got this.
Kidding aside, there are strong parallels between sheltering in place and being hunkered down in a winter storm. Both make the world feel smaller, as new boundaries are created by circumstances beyond our control, and with most aspects of life on hold, there is nothing to focus on but the here and now. Being in these situations tends to expose what really matters in life, like family, food, shelter, coffee, and WiFi.
These circumstances are a fitting analogy for the act of photography; what is it to bring a viewfinder to your eye, other than to frame the moment, revealing the beauty and meaning within?
I am fortunate to have access to natural outdoor space. I’m not alone either – literally; cyclists and hikers have found their way out of nearby towns and into our quiet little hamlet in ever greater numbers in search of space to socially distance.
Each day during the pandemic, as the dwindling evening light would fill me with the impulse to chase the setting sun, I would head out the door, camera hanging off my shoulder, mask in my pocket, looking to clear my head and get some fresh air and exercise, lured on by the prospect of making some photographs of this unprecedented time. (By the way, is there a time limit on how long a situation can be called “unprecedented”?)
Because my routine was limited to the same short stretch of tree-lined gravel road travelled two ways, I’ve spent a portion of this ordeal feeling like I’m reenacting the movie Groundhog Day. The title of said movie entered the pop culture lexicon by being associated with a “repetitive, monotonous and unpleasant situation” by virtue of the plight of its main character, played by Bill Murray, who is doomed by some unknown force to repeat the same day over and over again, seemingly forever. If this feels at all familiar to anyone, it may be because you’ve been locked down during the pandemic. There is an important lesson for us in these times in the way protagonist weatherman Phil Connors is finally able to knock the time loop off its track. It could just be the key to living in a pandemic; his liberation comes not from using his prior knowledge of events and people to his advantage, but instead through personal transformation.
I find photography subtly transformative, and that is part of its appeal. Walking with a camera is a moving meditation in which paramount importance is placed on being present in your surroundings. Each camera setup comes with a different way of seeing, as it were. Think of how using a waist level finder changes your perception, as an example. This makes photography always a collaboration; even when it is a solitary endeavor we are translated differently through each camera, with its technical facets shaping our method of expression.
My choice of camera on any day was a gut decision. Even though I seemed to lean toward the mirrorless Fuji XT-2, due to its versatility, live image preview, film simulations and automation, I also welcomed and enjoyed the opportunities and limitations provided by other options. Black and white forced me to think more in composition and tonality, manual cameras forced me to slow down and be more deliberate, as did film, which made me more economical with my exposures.
These past months my choice of (non-human) walking companions have run the spectrum from film to digital, rangefinder to SLR to mirrorless, black and white to color, automatic to manual, a Nikon F-801s, Leicaflex SL, Canon AE-1, Leica M8 or the aforementioned Fuji XT-2.
Groundhog Day may be more relevant now than ever. I think its message is carried in the social unrest that has boiled over as a consequence of being locked down for weeks and months. All this sacrifice of life, liberty, and prosperity can’t be made in vain; it has to be a catalyst for personal and societal change. We need a new normal.
To apply this personally, it may be that this singular path that I’ve been walking for weeks on end has something to teach me; maybe by being limited I am meant to learn that, in a way, there really is only one path, so if I can’t walk this one properly, there’s no point in walking any other.
To extend this to photography, perhaps if I cannot make a good photograph here and now, I cannot make one anywhere, as the photographs come from me, not from my surroundings.
No two travels down this gravel road have felt the same. I won’t lie, early on in the shutdown, with no real end in sight, I had a flask with me more often than not, and returned home with it empty. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I laughed, and sometimes I experienced a bittersweet combination of both. I thought about people I miss, and in my isolation the gap between those who were alive and those who were gone closed just a little – they were, in effect, equally accessible (or inaccessible). I had lost my father and aunt not long before the pandemic, and in invoking them, I mused that perhaps there was some cosmic wisdom involved in their passing. Of course, all of this made me hold my family that much closer.
One walk, only a few weeks into the pandemic, I felt as if I were on another planet. The relative quiet of human activity seemed to raise the volume of the natural world. I took to Instagram to post with this caption:
With no trace of humanity but the empty road ahead, I felt an eerie absence. The void was filled with the breeze, red-wing blackbirds signaling to one another, the beating wings of a grouse, the chirps of a red squirrel, and the yipping of coyotes. I watched the sunset and felt its warmth on my skin. There’s this whole other world behind everything.
It took me roughly three months to expose three rolls of Ilford HP5+, which had more to do with being split between five cameras than a lack of inspiration, but double exposures slowed me down a bit too. Looking over these photos, their variety in quality and character becomes apparent, and their assembly seems like a fitting reflection of the range of experience my photography has provided over the past few months.
When all roads are open again, I hope that we don’t rush back onto the same well-worn paths that got us into a pandemic in the first place. Personally, it will be a long time before I can look ahead without envisioning the vanishing point perspective of my gravel road through the many viewfinders I used during the Great Pause.
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Lovely images and thoughtful writing. We had seven weeks of severe lockdown in New Zealand, and I did not make many photographs. For the past couple of months we have been free of the plague, and able to travel. I have just come back from five days exploring the alpine back country where I shot five rolls of film. But last night new cases of community transmission emerged, so part of the country is already back in lockdown, and while I am still able to move about freely this could change at any time. It does make you appreciate what is really important doesn’t it!