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Life Photography

Lockdown Photography (Part One)

When this whole horrible COVID19 experience started—back when we thought maybe we’d be in lockdown for a few weeks, not a few months to a year—I thought to myself that at least it might be something worthy of documenting with my camera. I considered the world so changed and strange in this moment in time that no one would really understand it in the future unless people tried to capture the experience.

But the truth is, I’ve really struggled. The world generally doesn’t look transformed. It doesn’t even look abandoned in many ways. It’s more eerie than that. It just looks like a perpetual early morning before people are out on the streets. Or what Sunday afternoons used to feel like in England in the 1980s. For the most part, the visual reality of this situation conveys almost nothing of the experience of living through it. In fact, at times, while it feels desolate and strange and disconcerting—terrifying even—it looks almost idyllic.

A better photographer than I might be able to capture the feeling. But in the meantime, here’s some of the surface reality of San Francisco in April and May 2020. I’ll probably post some more in another couple of months.

One day, when basically overwhelmed by the state of things, I went for an epic walk from my home all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge and part of the way back. The walk was about four hours long, and very strange with all the streets abandoned and quiet. The Golden Gate Bridge itself was the strangest. It wasn’t deserted by any means, but compared to normal, it was fascinatingly empty.
Seeing friends has become a highly sporadic activity and everyone is being incredibly cautious. In the first time I’d seen him for at least two months, Matt suggested that we go up to Bernal Park one afternoon to play with his new drone. He brought alcohol wipes and I brought Purell so we could handle the controls without risk of disease spread. We both wore masks. It did not feel normal.
I don’t really have pictures of all the shops on Valencia boarded up. That was probably the weirdest thing – one by one all the shops disappearing, being put into some kind of suspended animation, knowing as they do it that some of them may never reopen again. It’s a hard thing to capture in a visually interesting way as well. But as time has spread, posters have started to appear that are better statements of how we’re feeling.
Dolores Park is normally packed with people, even during the week. And now it’s starting to get busier again, particularly on the weekends when the weather is good. People are taking risks in being out, and hoping that the openness will minimize the chance of contagion. For a few weeks though, it was pretty much completely empty.
Cliff’s Variety in Castro is sort of like a hardware store in drag. It sells all kinds of sensible practical things, plus feather boas and shiny chains and Bear Pride flags. Because it’s a hardware store, it counted as an essential business. But they still wanted to be really careful when opening up. There’s nothing less like the feel of the Castro than this sad, quiet, structured and orderly line. I found it deeply unsettling.
Ben and I decided we needed to get some exercise one afternoon so slogged up to Kite Hill in the Castro. At this stage, very few people had serious face masks and we were making do with scarves and pieces of fabric. The hill was busy but also really weird, everyone subdued and concerned and insular.
This *is* good news, and it’s pretty widespread around San Francisco. Some of them are really great. But it’s hard to maintain this level of positivity and optimism and it’s hard to read it and take it at face value. There’s a celebration of anything that we can do to make things feel more normal, but the desperation with which people reach for them actually makes things feel less normal, more bizarre.
Part of a long walk to get some of the anxiety out of our systems. I found this picture to sort of capture part of my feeling, part of my sense that my beautiful city is trapped in some kind of vice. I feel the same about my own heart and lungs.
Another trip up to Bernal to look at the view and exercise the demons. Looking out over the city it’s both hard to get a sense of how weird everything is but also you get this sense of hundreds of thousands of people hiding in all these little boxes. Insular, caged, worried people.
This took a while to interpret, but the short version is FUCK THIS NOISE. This particular wall was covered in anti-Trump posters, but this actually felt both clever and oddly mood-encapsulating. Fuck this noise indeed.

6 replies on “Lockdown Photography (Part One)”

Oh Ben, these are wonderful. One thing I think stands out for me is that you’re using wide angles a lot more and that helps to reveal how empty everything is. I should have thought of that. Thanks.

Hi Tom, nice to see you again in the blogosphere! Nice post! In feedly the images didn’t load though, I’m not sure why. Also do you plan to switch to https?

Hi there – two questions – let me see.
(1) Yeah, I don’t know what’s going on there. It just seems to be affecting feedly, it doesn’t seem to be affecting any other RSS reader. It’s a completely standard off-the-shelf version of WordPress, so I’m surprised it doesn’t seem to be working for them, and I’m not quite sure what to do about it. Do you have any suggestions?
(2) Switching to https – yeah, I expect to do that at some point in the near future, but obviously I haven’t done it yet. It has been a while since I last ran a blog and got it up to date with all the recent stuff, and I’ve never set up https before, so I want to make sure I don’t bugger anything up when I do it. If you have any pointers, please let me know.

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