Photography in the Time of Covid: Some Pandemic Photobooks

For the past year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced photographers to reassess how they make work. Yet none of the photobooks that Andy Pham and Eugenie Shinkle discuss below make direct reference to the virus itself. Instead, they pose the problem of the pandemic in terms of a relationship between the individual and space – between the loneliness of self-isolation, the novelty of cities emptied of people, and the apprehension of encountering others. For many, changes in the way that we engaged with people and space throughout multiple lockdowns has had a more significant and lasting effect than the illness itself. 

Andy Pham:  We can distinguish two very different kinds of reaction to the emotions of isolation, fear, and uncertainty that were raised by the pandemic.  While some photographers turned toward their own internal headspace, others looked outward to try and understand the new environment that was forced upon all of us.

Eugenie Shinkle: Ideas of closeness, distance and confinement all play out in varied ways in these books. Ed Sykes’ The Space Between Us is a study of the paranoia linked to close human contact during lockdown; Charlie Birch focused on some very public responses to the loss of freedoms. Anastasia Davis, Teju Cole, and Misaki Shimizu all made work in response to being cooped up indoors for weeks on end, and to the newfound strangeness of familiar environments. Federico Gargaglione’s The Tragedy of Togetherness is a melancholic study of human relationships, and how they suffered during the pandemic. But Cole’s Golden Apple of the Sun was the book that kicked off the discussion, wasn’t it?

AP:  Yes, it was.  Golden Apple of the Sun is quite an enigma. The photographs document Cole’s cooking at home throughout the pandemic, using still lifes of countertops, dishware, utensils, and food. Initially, the images themselves are a disappointment; they don’t necessarily invite repeat viewing.  The book’s success hinges more on the long-form essay that follows the sequence of pictures. I couldn’t help wondering: why make these photographs in the first place?  Is it merely an act of self-indulgence?  Or something born out of boredom?  To me it appears to be an insular and solipsistic response to the events of the world happening around him.  

ES: I’m not sure that Cole actually set out to make conventionally ‘interesting’ photographs. There’s a subtle reference, in the accompanying essay, to a remark that John Cage made in 1959: “In Zen they say, if something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.” Neither Cole’s pictures nor the essay are easily accessible, and both make certain demands on the reader. The essay ignores most of the normal protocols of essay-writing: it’s rambling, stream of consciousness, and seemingly unedited, almost like those 4am racing thoughts that keep you awake some nights. 

AP: It seems to me that the “essay” is actually the entirety of the book: images and words together, as a vehicle for expressing all of the thoughts he is having on a wide range of issues during the time of the pandemic. 

ES: Yes, definitely. It doesn’t make sense to think of Golden Apple of the Sun as a conventional photobook – a suite of pictures with an accompanying essay to provide context. I also found it helpful to think of the book as performative – hard going at times, for sure, but very good at transporting the reader into Cole’s own (physically confined, but intellectually and imaginatively unbound) headspace. Cole thought a lot about how he made these pictures, but I still don’t think of him as a ‘photographer’ in the way I think of someone like Thomas Prior: Amen Break, for instance, was made during roughly the same time period, but Prior is someone who speaks through images, it’s his only language. It feels as though Cole takes photographs in order to better understand how to write about them.

‘It feels as though Cole takes photographs in order to better understand how to write about them.’

AP:  Cole talks at one point about ‘constraints’ and this sparked my understanding of what he’s possibly trying to do. The pandemic itself is a giant constraint on the entire world. There were other regional constraints and events, like the U.S. Presidential election, at the time of his writing: things that no one had any direct control over and that caused a general sense of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety.  Like anyone else, all he could  do was turn his camera to what was around him and what he knew – in this case, his kitchen and food.  Similarly, he put constraints on his own act of photographing: he didn’t move things in his kitchen around, just took  them as they were  and documented them on a daily basis.  It’s as if the camera acted as his eyes: we do this every day by looking and seeing, but never really document the slowness of such things until external circumstances require us to do so.

Federico Gargaglione, The Tragedy of Togetherness

ES: Yes, I get that feeling too – it’s as though Cole is asking the reader to re-experience the kind of protracted, slowed-down time that he experienced during the pandemic. Federico Gargaglione’s The Tragedy of Togetherness does something similar – in his case by taking the same photograph over and over. It’s a small book containing 20 photographs of a tree that he could see from his apartment window. In November of 2020, workers came and cut the top off of the tree, leaving only a tall stump. The book begins with images of the tree being cut, but the rest are of its remains, set against the changing environment.  Leaves fall, snow comes down, snow melts, new growth emerges; at some point a bird perches on top of the tree. Life goes on. It’s only when we discover a short transcription of text messages at the end of the book that we learn that this timeline also marked the end of a relationship. 

AP: I think for Gargaglione, being alone prompted a reflection on the meaning of togetherness, and he used the tragedy of the tree being dismembered as a metaphor for this.  The tree stump to me signifies not just his own relationship or experience, but a wider feeling of social inertia.

ES: But romance also magnifies the significance of certain objects, doesn’t it? The tree feels like one of these tokens, especially when we learn that the relationship failed. So it’s never clear whether the protracted time in Gargaglione’s book is a consequence of the pandemic, or whether it was more about the way that time seems to move more slowly during periods of emotional distress: that endless wait for a phone call from a lover…..  

Anastasia Davis, Sunless

AP:  Anastasis Davis’ zine Sunless feels similar to Golden Apple of the Sun in the sense that the enforced isolation initiated a kind of internal movement into a headspace that emerged as a set of images, but with a totally different visual result.  Davis uses her own experience of isolation and disconnect as a starting point for her work.  She then repurposes these emotions to produce a free-flowing and distorted series of images, unlike Cole’s “deliberately disinterested and neutral” pictures, as he describes them.  She used her cell phone to photograph her own archival images, as well as found photographs displayed on her computer screen.  The pictures are zoomed-in crops, pieces of something larger.  But the mystery of what that something is remains, as each full-bleed spread only reveals so much content.  Her use of abstraction leaves the reader feeling claustrophobic and confused – a reflection of her internal headspace – but she doesn’t seem to have tried to rationalize her claustrophobia and confusion like Cole does; she uses it as a catalyst for producing work. 

ES: I haven’t thought about why it is that I don’t find her photographs boring. Perhaps it’s the way that they suggest a more raw kind of human experience? For the same reason, I don’t find Gargaglione’s twenty photographs of the same tree boring. Both books invite a very dream-like visual experience. In the case of Gargaglione, it’s about observing the subtle changes from one image to the next. With Davis, it’s more about the way that abstract imagery requires an imaginative effort on the part of the viewer, an openness to a kind of ‘pure’ visual sensation.

AP:  Like Gargaglione’s work, it’s very personal, and both books reflect a sense of visual imagination and exploration that were dictated by emotions most of us had never felt before.  This seems to be missing in Golden Apple of the Sun.  Davis and Gargaglione explore their range of experience in abstractions that represent something wider than what is within the frame.  To me this is a necessary reaction; the fact that the world was and is grappling with things we’ve never seen or dealt with before means that artistic responses will also be expressed in ways that conventional language – visual or written – cannot do.  With his very calculated combination of images and text, it’s almost like Cole has done all the imagining for us – there’s nothing more for the reader to do. The essay is so wide-ranging that we can’t ‘fill it in’ with our own thoughts and experiences, and the pictures don’t invite that kind of imaginative response either. 

ES: It’s a real enigma, as you pointed out earlier: an infinite headspace with no room for anyone else…. Misaki Shimizu’s Solipsism Syndrome is a very different take on the infinite. The book’s title refers to a condition that astronauts develop during extended periods in space, where they begin to feel that reality is completely confined to the inside of their mind. It’s a really intense sensation of loneliness and isolation. As her sense of social belonging began to fade away, Shimizu’s reality was reduced to ‘endless internal dialogues and interactions with inanimate objects in the house. My own thoughts and experience were the only thing that proved my existence and nothing in the outside world mattered to me.’ Solipsism Syndrome combines photographs of ordinary household objects with images sourced from NASA’s online archive. Images of space occupy a curious space in the collective consciousness: they’re both familiar and utterly alien, and the combination here is really unsettling. Something that we imagine to be a ball of liquid hydrogen a million light years away turns out to be a shower; we’re pulled back and forth between feeling completely enclosed, and feeling as though we’re adrift in an endless space. Her images also have that compelling, slightly humbling beauty that pictures of space have.

AP: So, on one hand we have Cole’s response to the events of the world at-large, and on the other we have books by Davis, Gargaglione, and Shimizu, who take their pandemic-related experience and form a foundation for imagery that is internally focused, withdrawn, and quite emotionally driven.  What about Sykes’ and Birch’s work?  How do their responses compare to what we’ve seen so far?

ES: Sykes and Birch are more focused on exterior reality, and on the way that collective responses to the pandemic played out in public space. Both projects were shot in crowded urban environments during lockdown –  Sykes’ The Space Between Us in London, and Birch’s Avondklok in Amsterdam. Sykes used a DSLR camera converted to infrared to take photographs of passers-by on the streets. Even in lockdown, there were plenty of people outdoors; in a densely packed metropolis like London, it’s hard to avoid, and the experience of being surrounded by masked strangers was unwelcome and often surreal. At least for me, there’s a strong element of paranoia in the work – that feeling, early on in the pandemic, that the stranger sitting next to you on the underground could be carrying your own death. Sykes’ photographs are printed in tones of blue; his subjects glide past the lens like sea creatures in an aquarium. Like Shimizu’s work, it’s simultaneously beautiful and alienating. It does a great job of capturing a kind of ‘pandemic emotion’ that I don’t really have a name for. 

AP:  It’s also interesting to me that for these artists, and I suspect many other people, the virus itself was concerning but not to the point of being completely paralyzing.  Here in America for example, at least in the beginning stages of the pandemic, restrictions were pretty lax as state and local governments tried to figure out how to go about implementing them.  There was more freedom at the time to go out and make pictures or to scope out the visual terrain…

ES: Things were very different in Europe: full lockdowns were imposed pretty quickly, and protests against them sprung up not long after. Avondklok is the Dutch word for ‘curfew,’ and all of the images in Charlie Birch’s eponymous book were taken at protests opposing the curfews imposed in the Netherlands, organised using encrypted social media apps like Telegram. Video footage of the events was also streamed on these apps, and Avondklok combines Birch’s own photographs with screen grabs of these videos, and collages that he created later. The work has one foot in traditional photojournalism, but it also moves away from it in significant ways. None of the protests were on mainstream media channels – they often popped up and ended in a very short space of time – so capturing images on streamed video was a way for Birch to effectively be in two places at once. Rather than the paranoia of proximity, there’s a sense of collective anger, even in the images that were grabbed from his computer screen. The collage elements also embody the intensity of feeling at these events, without the imperative to objectivity and truth that mainstream news media are still bound by.

AP: These last two books get into the political dimensions of the pandemic in a way that the other books don’t; the way that occupying space was itself a social and political statement.

ES: Definitely, and this a key element in both Sykes’s and Birch’s work, this idea that simple actions suddenly became transgressions. Leaving the home without a ‘valid’ reason was punishable by law in many places, and it contributed to a general sense of unease and distrust. Am I risking arrest by going out? Is my errand legitimate? What about the guy next to me? None of the protests in Avondklok would have happened without a flow of networked information operating on underground channels: but making such protests illegal wasn’t just about halting the spread of infection, it was also a way of criminalising expressions of a right to freedom of movement.

‘Even though many pandemic restrictions are likely to persist and change the social landscape moving forward, in terms of making work, these artists all forged ahead and created publications that engaged audiences in different ways. I think it speaks to the ability of art, photography, and writing, to bridge the gaps between a distanced society.’

AP:  Even though many pandemic restrictions are likely to persist and change the social landscape moving forward, in terms of making work, these artists all forged ahead and created publications that engaged audiences in different ways. I think it speaks to the ability of art, photography, and writing, to bridge the gaps between a distanced society. But it’s also an implicit indictment of an art world that’s not always willing to accept new forms of expression. The pandemic scenario gave artists in a relatively rigid art system the space to make work whose symbolism or deeper meaning was rooted fully in their own headscape.  It empowered photographers to make work on their own terms. I think this ability to maintain a semblance of freedom through creation is, at the very least, some form of return for the freedoms and time lost.

Charlie Birch
Teju Cole/MACK
Anastasia Davis
Federico Gargaglione
Misaki Shimizu
Ed Sykes

All Rights Reserved: text © Andy Pham & Eugenie Shinkle; images © the photographers and Teju Cole/MACK