I was 2,500 miles away from home when COVID-19 started to unravel the fabric of our daily routines. On the road for work at a client’s campus, the action was swift and disorienting; people wheeling what they needed on office chairs to their cars, myself and others told to take a flight — any flight — as soon as possible back home. As businesses shut down around me, I grabbed the first flight I could while trying to juggle preparations back home.
Wandering through eerily still airport terminals usually bustling with life, a worker’s radio echoed in the expanse “reminder, airport staff can’t wear masks,” while I captured a few surreal frames of passengers who considered masks and gloves a necessity.
Shelter-at-home in California had already begun by the time I walked in the door three days after beginning my trek home. My three daughters were out of school for some unknown amount of time, my wife out of her classroom, my office locked up.
At the time of publication on April 9th 2020, that was 25 days ago. My kids would tell you it might as well have been 250.
While the documentarian in me would like to wander into our newfound existence and capture the conditions we find ourselves in, it would be not just irresponsible and in some instances, no doubt reprehensible. Society demands better of us today but that doesn’t mean creativity has to find shelter.
I sat down, took stock of my resources, and considered my choices: shooting large format indoors didn’t seem feasible as an everyday activity nor did daily stretches in the darkroom. I needed something more raw to capture this weird feeling, a different sort of project and medium. It was then that I noticed a forgotten purchase in the back of my refrigerator: a stack of Polaroid film packs.
With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting travel, exploring the old medium of instant photography with a Polaroid SX-70 feels like a new creative outlet in isolated times. A new project was born: the daily life of us, our family, our existence during a pandemic, captured on Polaroid.
Polaroid may seem like an odd medium in an age where the snapshot too often comes from a phone in your pocket, but I’ve always had a soft spot for instant photography in its various forms even as it has dwindled; I still keep a tiny cache of Fujifilm FP-100C I shoot in the spring months.
With the re-emergence of readily available SX-70 film, I grabbed my late grandfather’s SX-70 Model 2. Its leather, although cracked and worn from age and use, performs admirably in this service combined with a more recent MiNT Flashbar.
Life isn’t perfect, the lighting isn’t always great, and there isn’t an Instagram filter to make it happier. My kids aren’t playing to the camera, they’re just getting through their days. Screen time limits? Out the door. Perfect home school desk? Not even close. Cute photos walking the dogs showing our social distancing prowess? No, we have to raise some chicks and prepare for that worst case long haul where eggs are a new kind of currency.
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The SX-70 is not a perfect performer; its exposure can be easily tricked by difficult lighting, there are no test shots, no burst mode, and no second chances. I could just as well grab a more capable camera and film to document our existence in this unprecedented time. Yet those square images capture the gritty and increasingly monotonous truth, unposed and real.
Those moments in the middle of a pandemic that may seem mundane or unnoteworthy, but represent a reflection of the existence of not just our family, but also many others as they cope with these trying times.
School is no longer routine; packed lunches and backpacks give way to a mixing of two worlds that are at odds: school time at home. Capturing those learning moments, be it at the piano or at the kitchen counter are reflections of the truth that having a school year upended isn’t easy for anyone. Remote learning sessions take hold, and my jealousy takes hold that second grade teachers have more prowess than any conference call I’ve been on lately.
Hobbies that gave you a pleasant weekend all of a sudden take on a new priority. The garden gets tended more for necessity than ever before. Bread making skills reserved for special occasions now become a weekly chose. Spring chicks you would have skipped over this year all of the sudden are in high demand and you expand your flock. Capturing that reality is somehow no longer the same and takes on new significance.
Work and home collide. The hours blur together and soon you realize you’re putting more hours than you ever did on the road or at your office. You resolved to never have a work desk at your house, yet there it is. You discuss strategic maneuvers to make a run to the office to avoid as many people as possible.
And yet, there beyond the planning and the fear of the unknown and the terrifying news reports is hidden joy. Seeing your kids smile and laugh at your lack of knowledge of meme’s as they show what the Internet looks like to them. Board games at night, a 40th birthday cake made without all the ingredients that generally go into a good tasting cake (yes, I ate every last bite and loved it), laser tag and dance battles.
That collective of moments is my resolve personally because it’s personal to me, but the project as a whole takes on more intent: to document the impression that living during this pandemic is having in our tiny instance.
My expectation is that this project will be a time capsule, something that ideally will contrast the abundance of images showing the lack of people in our metropolis. In my perfect world this set becomes part of a museum somewhere, for historians to use as another touchpoint in the everyday lives of people during this time.
Documenting of course comes at a cost; 20 days and a 15 film packs later, my once mighty SX-70 film reserves run low as isolation grows and those very boxes are unceremoniously displaced by a grocery order. “Food over film Dad,” my oldest daughter Alli laments. “Just keep shooting.”
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