I don’t think it an understatement to say that 2020 was a year unlike any other, and even now as we approach spring of 2021 the devastation, fear and uncertainty that many assumed would be gone, remains with us.
We now hold onto the hope that medical science will come to our rescue and at least help us to control, if not cure, the deadly virus that has become our constant companion.
For most of us, born into rich postwar countries with thriving economies, I think it is fair to say that we have never experienced any real menace, or hardship that would have encroached much closer than a news bulletin on television.
However, sitting comfortably at home in our untouchable western towers in the first days and weeks of 2020, and hearing tales of a new killer flulike virus wreaking havoc on the other side of the world, there was a creeping realisation that this strange and malevolent new threat was surely about to invade our normally safe and secure world.
As news reports from far off lands slowly crept closer, Covid 19, like water spilt on tissue, spread out smoothly and evenly, covering, embracing and imparting it's deadly gift to all in its path without exception.
Within what seemed a matter of weeks the world simply shut down.
Countries closed their borders, entire nations were instructed by their governments to stay at home indoors and economies were put on indefinite hold.
History tells us, it is of course a certainty that one way or another we will all emerge from this battle zone.
Many of us no doubt carrying scars of one kind or another, whether physical or mental, and all with tales to tell
It was always going to be a certainty that the art community would respond to the devastating effects of the Covid epidemic, and sure enough, around the world the subject has been tackled by myriad artists in many countries and employing multiple approaches.
Photography, with its literal immediacy was well placed to take centre stage, and within the first months of the pandemic, projects started to be announced.
As an adopted Londoner of twenty years three particular titles have caught my attention thus far.
These are documentary projects, direct uncluttered and carrying a straight forward message that will clearly record the the times we are currently living through.
Imbued with the humanity that is essential to set them apart from other projects that will no doubt surface over the coming months, they will also provide a lasting document of these terrible times.
1 The City
Pause by Jan Enkelmann
Jan Enkelmann is a London based German photographer, who originally caught my attention with his book “Smoking Chefs”, a collection of street portraits featuring chefs and kitchen staff caught on their breaks in the alleys adjacent to the restaurants in Soho’s Chinatown.
“Pause” had its genesis on the night of March 22, 2020, the evening that the national lockdown was announced in England.
Enkelmann was riding his bicycle though the already deserted streets on his way home, and although the eerie quiet that we were all to become so accustomed to was still fresh enough to be almost a novelty, he was already able to see the opportunity of recording this unprecedented time in our history.
The opportunity to present London's streets and buildings in a way usually unthinkable...completely deserted and bereft of people.
Photographed predominantly at night and reproduced in rich vibrant colour, the results of Enkelmann’s daily expeditions have yielded some truly striking images.
As someone who lives in London, it is a curious delight that rather than just recording the familiar and obvious locations, Enkelmann has also toured us through the parts of London that will be largely unfamiliar to many. For example, the backstreets of Soho, Camden and Kings Cross, fabulous almost shabby areas which forego the glitz and profile of their glamourous neighbours, but are the streets and roads that would normally pulse with life and energy at any time of the day or night.
It may seem in saying this, that Pause could therefore be a book of limited more localised appeal. After all, why would the petrol station at Southwark or the taxi rank at King’s Cross be of any interest to anyone beyond the boundaries of the M25?
It is probably best to consider it the same way you might look at any landscape of an unknown land, or indeed a portrait of a stranger.
Whilst unfamiliar to the eye, it is the beauty of the composition, the warmth of the colours and fresh details that blink at you from the darkness and ambush the eye every time you revisit the picture.
And of course the stillness, palpable in every frame, like scenes from some dystopian movie. Empty sets waiting for a cast that is unlikely to arrive any time soon.
Is this the most radical approach to documenting the lockdown landscape ?
Possibly not, and as we are still currently under varying degrees of isolation and confinement, it would be fair to say that as we approach the first anniversary of lockdown, Enkelmann could conduct the same routes today and capture near identical empty landscapes.
What and he has done however, is to instil a mood of architectural grandeur and alien isolation in a breathtakingly cinematic way.
We as a population have never experienced - and London as a city - have never seen anything like this before, and hopefully we never will again.
However, when looking back a few years on from now, and stories are told and memories recounted, when the pulse has returned to the arteries that are our roads, streets and pavements, and people once more become the blood in its veins, books like Pause will be what we turn to as a sobering reminder and visual interpretation of the stillness and isolation that dominated our Covid experience.
So with all this pristine solitude, it may be somewhat ironic that it is an image featuring a person that lingers with me the most.
In a collection of images depicting a city under siege, a single cyclist bears down on the lens, making his way through the dark deserted streets of one of London’s busiest and most beloved areas. The red of the paper lanterns spanning the space between the buildings, forming a paper chandelier illuminating Chinatown’s bricked streets and smiling down on our intrepid stranger. Positioned defiantly centre stage, this masked figure appears - for me - as a symbol of hope and optimism, and a message that says “life goes on, we will get through this”.
Enkelmann turned to Kickstarter to enable him to publish Pause, and it was successfully funded within days of being announced.
The first print of eight hundred copies is already fully subscribed, but I am happy to confirm that a second edition will be available soon.
2 The People
Carole Evans - Through The Looking Glass
The second book in this London lockdown trilogy is from documentary photographer Carole Evans. Like Enkelmann, Evans turned to Kickstarter in order to raise funding for what has become her debut photobook.
A resident of suburban South East London, Evans was walking along her street in the early days of lockdown, when she stopped to wave hello to a neighbour standing at their window. A conversation struck up, during the course of which the germ of an idea was born.
Evans was struck by not only the closeness of the encounter, but thanks to the sheet of glass between them, also the separation. Looking at the person on the other side of the pane, she was aware of both reflections of the street behind her, and the warm cosy confinement before her.
A suburban zoo of confined animals with throw cushions and satellite tv.
Connection and alienation, intimacy and distance.
Such was the fear and paranoia that existed (especially in the first lockdown), that these places of safety and refuge - our homes - literally became our entire worlds for seemingly endless months.
Those lucky enough to have gardens or outside space would at least have some respite, however for many others although encouraged to take daily exercise in the form of local walks, it would be several months before many ventured out, blinking and a little shell shocked into the “new normal”.
For Carole Evans, the opportunity to record her version of the lockdown experience is the polar opposite from the wide open emptiness of Enkelmann’s Pause. Through The Looking Glass is a warm intimate portrait of a community in confinement.
Gone are the empty streets and majestic architecture, to be replaced by the warm embrace of gardens in bloom, crayoned rainbows taped to glass and a sea of faces reaching out for the confirmation of connection beyond the crystal barricades that shield them.
Through a relay of messages, a WhatsApp group was created and the response was overwhelming.
Whilst Evans will have known a few of the people in her neighbourhood, as with the rest of us, a more will have been not much more than nameless figures to which you may have said good morning if you passed on the street, and even more likely the majority of others you would not even recognise.
Ask yourselves, how many doors you could knock on in your road or apartment block, confident in knowing the person who answered the door well enough to be invited in for a drink or a chat?
The portraits in Through The Looking Glass are a capsule cross section illustrating the many moods brought about by isolation.
Families safely grouped together, the oblivious laughter and smiles on the faces of children enjoying this new game, shielded from the world by the reassuring presence of mum and dad, who themselves have their own anxieties at least temporarily diluted and diverted by constant innocent demands.
Couples happy for the support of each other, whilst unknowingly preparing for the strains of longtime confinement with one of two outcomes. Either a relationship that will last until the end of days, or packed suitcases and a parting of the ways.
And of course those going through this experience by themselves. Stoic, resigned, maybe a little resentful. Outwardly the “I’m doing fine” company line would suffice in answer to the obvious question.
Whatever their situation, it is pretty certain that there isn’t one person in any of these groups that would not have wish to changed places with one of their neighbours at some point during the enforced confinement, just for a day or so. Some craving company, others desperate for a little quiet and solitude.
The sacrifice of choice and freedom for the good of all.
Of course there are stories behind every pair of eyes, and Evans has punctuated the book with short anecdotal notes.
Concerned parents, students with uncertain futures, tales of isolation within isolation, a retreat to the family loft room, the only remaining place of sanctuary.
Through The Looking glass is a very English book, but as with Pause the situation is replicated around the world. Every country will have its equivalent suburban location full of anxious residents longing for a return to normality.
Little lives telling a global story.
Dougie Wallace - Bus Response
The final book in this selection looks at how the people of London have adapted to life with the Corona virus whilst attempting to carry on their daily lives in central London.
If there was an urbane sensibility and atmosphere of complete cooperation in Carole Evans’ work that proved the perfect approach for her environment, then the raw “in your face” style of Dougie Wallace is - in its own way - perfect for his.
Internationally renowned photographer Wallace is well known for his uncompromising street work, rather like a Scottish Bruce Gilden, many of his subjects would hardly accuse him of trying to flatter them.
Much of his work has been published by Uk independent Dewi Lewis, and whether raucous pre wedding celebrations, animated Indian taxi drivers or grotesque Knightsbridge shoppers, there is an honesty and unabashed sense of fun that emanates from every frame (well from the artist’s point of view at least).
For Bus Response, Wallace took his camera through the streets of London’s west end used the iconic double decker buses to document the way in which shoppers and commuters were coping with the lockdown phenomenon.
The results, in bold vibrant colour are an absolute joy to behold.
The humour, the spirit, the refusal to be beaten.
Whether out of necessity or just steadfastly, bloody mindedly determined to carry on, it is a wonderful tribute to the strength of the human spirit
As with most countries, the declining rate of infection in the spring and summer of 2020 meant that for a short period of time lockdown restrictions across the Uk were eased. How that would be received was always going to be something of an unknown quantity, and sure enough telling a city of nearly nine million people that it was “safe” to go out again was all the encouragement that was needed.
Not for everyone of course, but the swell of activity was as striking as the contrast between night and day.
In Bus Response, Wallace captured some of those attempting to just go about their daily routines.
A woman applies her makeup whilst a suited commuter lolls unconsciously in the seat behind her.
A mum with her little boy...at least I’m assuming it’s a boy. Completely cocooned in puffer jacket a big pair of eyes stare out from behind a tinted mask section of the hood. Hazmat by Uniqlo.
Two girls oblige the photographer with choreographed leg stretches.
And a woman on the street outside the bus. Complete in dogtooth checked jacket, Pearl necklace and hair in huge rollers.
“World here I come!”
I can only hope that this picture wasn’t staged, because if any image represents the determination and resolve not to be beaten during this chaos, then this is surely it.
And through all these pictures, the one constant, the one new accessory, the face mask.
How many would have thought that not only would we embrace them, but in many instances, go as far as to turn them into a fashion statement.
Dougie Wallace’s book is a beacon, an indication that there is hope and optimism out there.
These are not rule breakers or lockdown flouters, these are just people trying to go about their daily lives, trying to remain safe and keep to the rules. If a face covering and a little alcohol rub are among the concessions required , then they are ones that most of us are happy to make.
Bus Response is a limited edition publication. Dewi Lewis have published just one hundred copies, and a striking thing it is too. A spiral bound landscape soft cover, it measures 420 x 300 mm, and is presented in a custom made box.
Towards the end of 2020 cases of Covid once again started to rise, and we found ourselves once more asked to stay at home.
Christmas was cancelled (Alan Rickman may be having a heavenly chuckle about that), and any thoughts of holidays on far flung sunny shores and even simple normalities such as drinks with friends, once again put on hold.
But, we remain stoic (well we don’t have much choice) and continue to place our faith in the scientists and of course, front line medical staff, as well as all the auxiliaries that continue to selflessly conceal their fatigue and stress, and say “we’ll look after you”.
For the ceaseless efforts of those still at the cliff face,
and to those that we have lost along the way,
it is not much, but with all our hearts,
we thank you.
Pause by Jan Enkelmann - For more information and possible orders
Through The Looking Glass by Carole Evans - For more information, and to order
Bus Response by Dougie Wallace - For more information and to order