When I was in art school, I had a studio that faced the blank wall of a nearby building, but the wall wasn’t blank. It was a story of construction, and of erosion, disintegration, and repair. So I painted pictures of the wall: the cracks just below the roofline, the bricks appearing under the fallen stucco, the angle the roof made with the sky, and the sky itself. Most of my paintings then were of the intersections between human-made structures and the natural world, as if buildings, like housepets, had a life of their own somewhat independent of people. They were not landscapes, in other words. They were portraits.*
I have traveled through many careers, identities, and foreign countries since those days, and always I took pictures, mostly not of myself or other people, but of places. Buildings. Rooms. Roofs against the sky. Every time I looked at them, in years after, I knew what it was.
I have in my favorite photos a snapshot of my grandmother’s house, St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, and a pathway through the dunes to the beach I have been going to for 68 years. But those snapshots aren’t pictures of the things, or documents of history, or evidence of my having been there. They are emotions.
So on the day we went into COVID-19 shutdown in March, I went out for my usual daily walk and took some photos to commemorate the moment, because I knew it would be important: The archway of a building that used to be an insurance company and is now an annex to the art museum, a close-up of some magnolia blossoms, and a sign on a dry cleaner door that says “Closed until Order Released.” When I look at them, that sense of not knowing how it will turn out is vivid.
The next day I did the same. I am a person who creates rock-hard projects on a whimsy,* so I decided I would take at least one photo in my corrupt, shabby, elderly Eastern city every day when I was out for my walk, until the summer solstice, naming the project “Pandemic Spring” in my head. I created a Google Photos album for the project and posted a new one on Instagram every day as a way of selecting.
As I did, I began to see a theme. My images were not of architecture (though there were houses), landscapes (though there were flowers and trees), art (though there were statues, such as the replica of an ancient Greek charioteer, wearing a surgical mask), or writing (though there were many, many signs). They were documents of something intensely present in a vacuum.
They were images of humanity but in the absence of people. Pictures of people who were just out of the frame, some of them holed up in their houses, some of them bravely venturing out to jog, go to their low-paid essential jobs, drink standing too close to neighbors, or get their medicine from the drugstore, but not right here, not right now.
They were, too, as are all photographs, portraits of myself. I was there. Here I was, on a street where every family had ordered a balloon garland to dress up their front steps. This is a photo of me looking up at a cherry-picker against a buttermilk sky, because I realized how many maintenance workers kept going in the city while other were at home staring at their screens with their children in their laps. And here I am looking at an ancient newspaper box with a pay phone on the wall behind it.*
When the solstice came around, the shutdown continued, and I kept taking photos of the Absence, but my deadline had arrived and so I ordered a photo book from Google Photos, which will be arriving tomorrow. I can’t wait to see what I saw. To see where I was.
Other people have albums full of gatherings of people, and having gone through all my mother’s photographs* after she died, from a bewildered obligation that someone should at least do them the honor of looking at them one more time,* I know that most photos I take of such people and the connections they represent will die with me.
But that picture of the underside of a dry fountain, never turned back on when spring came but people weren’t back? That snapshot of a bouquet of electric meters on a patched brick wall, framed with a calligraphic flourish of black cable and telephone wires? The blue-and-pink crepe paper wound around the columns of a gazebo that sits in the mostly-empty park near me? Someone’s hopeful petunias? A chalk arrow on the sidewalk, labeled “6 feet” by an unsteady hand? Those are portraits of a living city, a city that contains a million and a half people, most of whom were hiding from an invisible microscopic substance and all of whom were not, just then, in the picture.
But I was there. And for that, I am grateful. Or at least hopeful.
* I also drew, in pen and ink, pictures of imaginary animals, but that is just something I always did.
*For more than two years, I posted five “writing prompts” for surreal stories in my Twitter feed. It was something to do. Then I deleted them all, because social media is not an archive of my life or an obligation, and it’s okay to delete what you say. Verbal utterances disappear into the atmosphere all the time, and written ones don’t deserve to be enshrined. Yes, I saved the prompts somewhere. Maybe I’ll publish them on Kindle some time.
*I am by age a Boomer, but not by inclination, and I hasten to say that I don’t miss newspaper honor boxes or pay phones; they are not sacred to me. I live for change and flux. But boy was that a neat image.
*And my mother’s sermons, and draft autobiographies, and letters. And my stepfather’s photos, my husband’s baby album, and my own shoeboxes and albums full of photos, and I scanned them all into digital form but kept the good ones and put them in new albums, knowing that my daughter will have to deal with them at some point. Mamas, take pity on your babies and don’t unsorted stacks of memorabilia for them to wade through. At least organize them and label them, if you can’t chuck most of them.
* I realized part way through my stepfather’s box of black-and-white World War II photos of people I will never know that I did not actually have the obligation to consider every one of them. I chose the really nice ones, the ones that showed what a lively and rather sweet young man he was once upon a time, and scanned those. Photographs are not a Holy Obligation. Seriously.